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

Friday, 28 October 2016

World War One - Messages in Bottles

A Bottled History of the First World War

For more on books by Ruth A Symes

To help trace the origin of a bottled message today it is possible to trace ships’ names, journeys, ports of destination and arrival, naval disasters and shipwrecks in archives and the press. Names and addresses of military personnel or civilians can be searched in military records, censuses, electoral rolls, trade and telephone directories.

(Wikimedia Commons)

Many of us have ancestors who fought in the First World War and, over the next few months and years, we will no doubt seek out their stories using official military records (available online for a small fee at all the major commercial genealogy sites); as well as personal records such as war diaries, letters and postcards sent home from the front. We are unlikely to come across anything as thrilling as a message in a bottle thrown into the sea by a young soldier or civilian in the grips of war! But many such items have in fact been found over the years and they give a dramatic and chilling insight into the desperation of the times.

The First World War involved a great deal of troop movement on water, especially across the English Channel but also in the North Sea, the Meditteranean, the Atlantic, The Black Sea, and the Baltic Sea. There was also some action in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.  At the same time, in a world before large scale-scale commercial aviation, many ordinary civilians continued to travel by sea for business and leisure purposes between 1914 and 1918. For some servicemen and civilians, messages in bottles were a last resort, a futile cry for help when ships, or other vessels were sinking. For many others the gesture of throwing bottle into the ocean would have been a jest, a last flippant acknowledgement of the folks back home as a new adventure unfolded. Few of these depositors believed, perhaps, that such a missive would ever reach its intended recipient. Such cheery bottled messages when found many years later are a sad testimony to the youthful naivety of those that threw them into the water.

For yet other message writers, however, there was definitely an undercurrent of recognition of the painful reality of their circumstances and a desperate attempt to leave something for posterity. Some soldiers and sailors would have been unsure whether an ordinary postal service would be uncensored, available, or at all efficient when they were serving overseas. Others were all too aware of the dangers they were facing. Many hoped that, if found, their messages would be sent on to wives and girlfriends, or transcribed into local newspapers and seen by their intended recipients, even if they, the senders, were no longer around.

British Soldiers off to France

26 year old Private Thomas Hughes of the Second Durham Light Infantry. Third Army Corp Expeditionary Force, wrote a letter to his wife on the 9th September 1914 as he crossed the English Channel on his way to serve in Northern France.  Hughes put his message in a green ginger beer bottle sealed with a screw-on rubber stopper. It read:

Dear Wife, I am writing this note on this boat and dropping it into the sea just to see if it will reach you. If it does, sign this envelope on the right hand bottom corner where it says ‘receipt’. Put the date and hour of receipt and your name where it says signature and look after it well. Ta ta sweet, for the present. Your Hubby."

A covering note asked the finder to send the note on to Hughes’ wife, ‘Sir or madam, youth or maid, Would you kindly forward the enclosed letter and earn the blessing of a poor British soldier on his way to the front.’ Unfortunately by the time the bottle and message were found some 86 years later off the Essex coast by Thames fisherman, Steve Gowan, Hughes’s wife Elizabeth was long dead. And it was discovered that Hughes himself had been killed just two days after he had bestowed his bottle to the waves.

Australian Soldiers Heading for Gallipoli

During World War One, as many as 313, 814 Australian soldiers embarked for service overseas. The first of these were aboard ship as early as October 1914 and included recruits from Tasmania, Adelaide and Perth on route for Gallipoli. Some bottles deposited in the sea by these men were washed up on the shore within days and their messages posted in local newspapers and then nationwide. Since the soldiers had generally not reached the battlefield, their messages tended to be reasonably cheery accounts of life on board ship and they remained uncensored in newspapers.   

Private Thomas Brown’s message in March 1916 to his mother at Killarney, Victoria was found just a few days later on the beach at Narrawong, Victoria:

Dear Mother,
I am now writing you these few lines, and hope you get them all right. I am putting this note in this bottle, and going to throw it overboard.
We are about 50 miles from shore. We know when we get somewhere near Warrnambool. We are having pretty good weather so far. If it keeps like this the whole of the voyage we will enjoy it.
You can tell father that I am sorry I did not write to him, but I had not time for the last two or three days. It was nothing but running about everywhere getting things ready for inspection.
Well, Mother, I will close my short letter, hoping you get it all right. Remember me to father, sisters and brothers.
son Tom,
At Sea.”

(Source: Tom Brown’s letter, Portland Guardian, 20 Mar. 1916,TROVE,NLA)

Thomas Brown’s message might not have been so upbeat had he written it after his war experiences. His military record, held in the National Archives of Australia and in newspaper accounts held at the National Library of Australia, shows that he served and was wounded in France before being sent once more to the front and wounded again on 11th April 1917. He was then taken prisoner-of-war at Remicourt, interred in a German war camp at Munster Lager, expatriated to England, returned finally to Australia on the 2nd March 1919.

Passengers on the Lusitania 7th May 1915

The Lusitania was a cruise ship owned by the Cunard Steamship Line which made regular monthly trips from Liverpool to New York. It was on a return journey from New York on May 7th 1915 that the ship was torpedoed without warning off the coast of Ireland by the German submarine U-20 ostensibly because it was believed to be carrying supplies and munitions provided by America to the British. The ship reportedly sank within 18 minutes of being struck and the loss of life was devastating: 1198 died, only 760 were rescued.

Various apocryphal stories circulated about messages that had supposedly been thrown from the Lusitania just before it sank, but then in the 1930s came two more certain pieces of evidence that such desperate action had in fact indeed been taken. In 1931, a shell-encrusted bottle turned up on the beach at Husum Scheleswig, Germany, and was reported in the Aberdeen Journal of 3rd January 1931. The message was signed with the names and cabin numbers of ten passengers and recorded chillingly that the ‘Lusitania [would] sink in 10 minutes.’ The second bottle was washed up on the shore of Viareggio, Italy, two years later and was reported in the Hull Daily Mail of 28th June 1933. It contained a faint message which appeared to include the words   ‘S.O.S.’ and ‘Lusit.’

Stranded German Aviators 1916

On 31st January 1916, German aviators in Zeppelin L 19 (LZ 54) of the Kaiserliche Marine (German Imperial Navy) left an airbase in Denmark to make a bombing raid on English cities. After attacking Burton-on-Trent, Tipton, Walsall and Birchills near Birmingham, the Zeppelin tried to return to Denmark but suffered engine and radio difficulties. She eventually drifted over Holland and was brought down into the North Sea during the night of 1st-2nd February by Dutch rifle fire. The 16 airmen managed to cling to the wreckage but their cries for help went unanswered by a British steam fishing trawler The King Stephen supposedly because the captain believed that he and the nine unarmed members of his crew be overpowered by the Germans if he attempted to rescue them. Now abandoned and realising that they were probably doomed, the German airmen and their captain Odo Lowe wrote messages to their families and placed them in bottles which they released into the sea.

The remains of the Zeppelin sank within hours: there were no survivors. Lowe’s bottle of messages to his family was found by a yacht near Gothenburg, Sweden a few weeks later. Another bottle with messages from the other airmen and a last report from Lowe was discovered six months later by Swedish fishermen at Marstrand: Its final line (here translated into English) made dramatic reading: ‘2nd February 1916, towards one o'clock, will apparently be our last hour.’

British sailors recovering a failed torpedo 1916
(Wikimedia Commons Popular Science Monthly, Volume 88.)

Nautical messages from the past - preserved in glass, or even plastic, like flies in amber - are likely to keep on turning up. Since few so far have managed to survive the seas for longer than a hundred years, we can’t expect many more to emerge from our ancestors who were involved in the First World War. However, a recent collector of bottled messages in the Thames Estuary has suggested that for every 200 bottles she sees on her gathering expeditions, at least one will contain a message! They were dropped into the sea sometime by someone’s ancestors. So do keep looking.

Click here for more on books by Ruth A Symes

Extra Reading

Bullivant, Richard, Message in a Bottle: Messages of Hope, Laughter, Despair and Intrigue (Real Life Stories) Kindle Edition, Nov. 2013.

Greg King and Penny Wilson, Lusitania: Triumph, Tragedy and the End of The Edwardian Age, St Martin’s Press, 2015. fascinating blog about the messages of Australian soldiers thrown overboard in bottles in the First World War.

Hart, Peter, Gallipoli, Profile Books, 2013.

Hayward, James, Myths and Legends of the First World War, The History Press, 2005.

Parker, Nigel J. Gott Strafe England: The German Air Assault Against Great Britain 1914-1918, Helion and Company, Volume 1, 2015
This article was first published in Family Tree Magazine UK in 2016.

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

 #familyhistory #genealogy #WorldWarOne #FirstWorldWar #messagesinbottles #ancestors #ancestry #familytree

Friday, 21 October 2016

Launch of Miss Weeton book at Museum of Wigan Life

Last night's great launch of Miss Weeton: Governess and Traveller (edited by Alan Roby and with an introduction by Ruth A. Symes) at the Museum of Wigan Life.

#missweeton #Regency #womenwriters #wigan #Lancashire #history #booklaunch #ellenweeton #governess

Monday, 17 October 2016

Old Age and Dry Rot - Investigating Elderly Ancestors

'Old Age and Dry Rot' : Investigating Elderly Ancestors

For more on books by Ruth A. Symes

Often seated whilst others stand, the oldest family members in some photographs might be people who were actually only middle-aged. Without the benefit of modern cosmetics, twentieth-century dental expertise and even hair dye, people in the past tended to look much older than they actually were and it is quite easy to mistake a 45 year old for someone twenty years older.

Early photographers enjoyed working with old people whom they found were capable of sitting still for longer, and who were less vain than their younger counterparts. If your elderly ancestor is portrayed alone in a photograph in his/her best clothing, it’s worth considering whether the photograph might have been taken to mark a significant senior birthday such as a 60th, 70th or 80th.

An elderly woman (portrayed probably in the 1860s). She may have been born as far back as the 1780s. With the permission of Ron Hunt
Photographs featuring grandparents and great-grandparents as couples might have been taken to celebrate significant wedding anniversaries. 25th and 50th wedding anniversaries were celebrated from the late nineteenth century onwards. On birthdays, anniversaries, at wedding and after funerals, three-generation or four-generation photographs were a popular Victorian convention which often featured the eldest family member cradling the youngest.

How old was old in the Victorian and Edwardian periods?

Don’t be too surprised to find ancestors on death certificates and censuses who lived to a good old age. Although average life expectancy was much lower in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries than it is now (47 (for men) and 51 (for women) in 1900 as opposed to 76 (for men) and 81 (for women) in 1991, this doesn’t mean that most people died in middle age. Calculations of life expectancy were influenced by very high infant death rates which inevitably brought down the ‘mean’ age of death. In fact, those of our ancestors who managed to survive infancy had a pretty good chance of living to 60 and beyond. From 1870 onwards with improvements both in the medical sciences and in public health, life expectancy started to increase. Middle-aged people were less likely to die from infectious diseases such as cholera or smallpox, for example, and thus might more frequently sally on into old age.

Nevertheless, you should be wary of some of the given ages of your oldest ancestors on official records. A Government Report into the 1881 census ( suggested that some very elderly persons were tending to overestimate their age, perhaps because extreme old age conferred some degree of respect and social status at the time, perhaps because they had genuinely forgotten how old they were and did not have the documentation to back up their claims. The report advised future enumerators to put little trust in ‘anyone stating their age as a multiple of 5 or 10 over 85’. Although 150 people claimed to have reached the age of a hundred or more in Britain that year, the report advised that they be treated with scepticism. Extreme old age was still very rare in the Victorian period. In 1901, only 74 people claimed to have reached a century and this figure is, of course, vastly below that of the 3,000 people who made the same claim in the year 2000.

The mid-twentieth century brought increasing longevity. At 96, Thomas Tattum was the oldest member of the community in Ashton-in-Makerfield on the day of the Queen’s Coronation in 1953.
Wigan World Website With the permission of Ron Hunt.

Support in Later Life


The chances are that your elderly ancestor will have had to carry on working way past what we now consider to be ‘retirement age’. According to an audit by  (based on 1007 records from the 1891 census) over 88% of men and 33%  of women carried on working after the age of 65 in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Some men were still working in highly physical jobs as farmers and miners well into their 80s and even, in some cases, their 90s. Women too might have carried on working as servants, laundresses, cooks and cleaners.

Family Support

Censuses might reveal that older members of your family moved to live with their children, or that a single daughter had stayed at home – perhaps forfeiting her own marriage prospects in the process – to look after her elderly parents. However, it is worth remembering that multi-generational households in the Victorian period were much less common in Britain than in any other country in Europe and the older people in your family might have had to rely on a variety of other forms of support.

Religious and Private Charities, and Friendly Societies

Some of our elderly ancestors would have benefitted from the generosity of religious or private charities. It is worth checking in local and county archives, trade directories and local history books to find out what sorts of charities might have been in operation in the areas in which your ancestors lived. Additionally, some kinds of employment had charities attached to them. The Governesses’ Benevolent Society (founded in 1841) for example, aimed to help some of those women who had made a living teaching in the homes of others and who, in their old age, had no other means of support. Whilst they were still of working age, other people (male and female) joined so-called ‘Friendly Societies’ to which they paid a weekly or monthly ‘sub’. This money could then be called upon in times of sickness, hardship, or less frequently old age.    

Public Relief

After the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, some elderly people in England and Wales qualified for a Poor Law Pension (which covered meals and a small allowance, but no accommodation costs) and were able to stay within their own homes or be looked after by relatives (The Scottish Poor Law Act came into operation in 1845). The names of the recipients of this so-called ‘outdoor relief’ can be found in Poor Law records kept in local, county or national record offices and searched via the National Archives website ( 

In the worst cases of poverty, an elderly ancestor will have been admitted to a workhouse. You should check for the location of the relevant workhouse records at the National Archives.  Conditions in the workhouse were frequently crowded and unsanitary, work heavy and repetitive, nursing provision poor and the food uninspiring to say the least. Some workhouses had adjoining ‘workhouse infirmaries’ which housed the incapacitated poor, very many of whom were elderly.

Old Age Pensions

In 1908, the Liberal government under Prime Minister Lloyd George passed the Old Age Pensions Act which was quickly followed by the institution of the State Pension Scheme (enacted from the 1st August 1908). Don’t assume, however, that your elderly ancestor would definitely have benefitted from a pension at this point. To have been considered eligible for a pension, he or she would have had to be over the age of 70, and earning less than £31 and 10 shillings a year (that is 12 shillings weekly). He or she would also have had to undergo a character test to ensure that he or she had a history of employment, had been a British citizen for at least ten years, was of sound mind, was not receiving poor relief, had not been in prison during the previous decade, and had not been convicted of drunkenness. The pension was 5 shillings a week for individuals and 7s and 6d for married couples.


The general health of elderly people was very far down the pecking order in terms of the State’s priorities in the Victorian period. Hospitals concentrated on health services targeted at the young and more productive workforce such as vaccination and the treatment of infectious diseases. The Admissions Regulations for some hospitals, indeed, expressly forbad the admittance of elderly people.

It was not until the inauguration of the National Health Service in 1948 that our elderly ancestors who were suffering from mundane but disabling conditions (impaired hearing, failing eyesight, dental and podiatric problems, for example) could, for the first time be treated for free. The health and well-being of Britain’s elderly population was finally being taken seriously.

Case Study

On the 1911 census, 86 year old William Sheader is described as the ‘great-grandfather’ in this Scarborough fishing family (See above). The terminology is potentially confusing to the family historian. Family members were supposed to be described on the census in terms of their relationship to the heads of households but old William is unlikely to have been the great-grandfather of the 44 year old George William Sheader mentioned here. With high mortality in the nineteenth century it is possible that the intermediate generation had died, leaving old William to be cared for by his grandson and his young family.

Useful books and websites

Bothelo L., and Thane, P., Women and Ageing in British Society Since 1500, (Routledge, 2001).

Chase, K., The Victorians and Old Age, (OUP, 2009).

Johnson, M. L. et al., The Cambridge Handbook of Age and Ageing, (CUP, 2005).

Thane, P., Old Age in English History: Past Experiences, Present Issues, (OUP, 2002).  For more on the nineteenth century workhouse. On ageing and mental illness during the Victorian period.

This article first appeared in Discover Your Ancestors online periodical in 2015.

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#oldage #geriatric #familyhistory #familyhistorybooks #familyfirst #familytree #genealogy #ancestors #ancestry #oldagepension #age

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Miss Weeton : Governess and traveller. Wigan Evening Post

And I get a name check!

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Friday, 14 October 2016

What was in your ancestor's pockets?

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                                        Ancestor's Pockets

Pair of women’s tie-in pockets, c . 1800. The design is an example of cotton quilting in jacquard Marseilles work. Our ancestor’s real pockets may have survived, either as stand-alone pockets (such as these) or as pouches sewn into garments. The material and capaciousness of a pocket might tell us something about the wealth of its owner, and his or her occupation. Embroidered pockets could be a sign of the wearer’s sense of their own attractiveness, or even their sexual self-awareness (in the same way as lingerie today!). Pockets that were worn by the wealthy may have been marked with names or initials or personalised with different embroidery designs.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. These pockets are currently held in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

When the corpse of my 77- year-old great-great-great-grandfather Lawrence Cooke was dragged out of the Leeds-Liverpool canal and taken to a local pub for identification and inspection, it was discovered that his pockets contained just two simple objects  - ‘a knife and an apple.’ These scant and mundane details appear in the record of the inquest into Lawrence’s death in the Wigan Observer and District Advertiser (1881). I know little of the life of this cotton spinner and journeyman, but I now have just a tiny, but fascinating, insight into what he contemplated might be his next meal. But was the knife simply the means to slice the apple, or a weapon of self-defence?

The contents of the pockets of many of our ancestors who met their ends in accidents or as a result of murder or suicide can be gleaned online by searching the records of inquests reported in British newspapers between 1710 and 1959 (The British Newspapers index:, also accessible via And what a motley collection of oddments those pockets held! Loose change, keys, watches and combs were typically accompanied in men’s pockets by snuffboxes, pipes and seals for fastening letters. Women’s pocketed items tended to be of a greater variety - from rings and other jewellery, to caps, handkerchiefs, thimbles, pincushions, needle-cases, scent bottles, mirrors, scissors and even nutmeg graters! In a Britain where there were few on-the-road eating places, few people dared leave home without snacks (oranges, apples, nuts and sweets) which were also invariably carried in the pockets.

Men and women in the Victorian and Edwardian periods often shared bedrooms and household furniture, and in such circumstances, pockets were perhaps the only private space in which they could place their most intimate and treasured possessions. For women – who, unlike their menfolk, may not have had locked chests-of-drawers or writing desks in which to hide away their private belongings - pockets were particularly important aspects of personal space. Barbara Burman, a pocket expert, has commented that, ‘pockets are a tiny, slight thing in terms of world importance but they are a very sensitive barometer about how we feel about the world and our possessions.’ And indeed, it may be possible to glimpse something of an ancestor’s life and character from the content of his or her pockets on the final day or his/her life. Look out particularly for evidence of his or her class status (work tools, jewellery), financial circumstances (money, pawn tickets) or even emotional life (locks of hair, lockets, painted miniatures, and letters from loved ones).

Reports of pickpocketing – with exact details of what was taken -  occur frequently in nineteenth-century newspapers. Thieves might remove wallets from men’s pockets or cut the strings of women’s tie-on pockets. Particularly valuable in Victorian London were silk handkerchiefs, stolen from people at fairs, marketplaces and public executions. In Field Lane in London (the setting of Fagin’s den in Oliver Twist) it is believed that up to 5,000 stolen handkerchiefs were handled each week in the mid-Victorian period.  
Credit: Photograph of an engraving in the Writings of Charles Dickens Volume 4 Oliver Twist, (Houghton, Mifflin and Co, 1894). Drawing entitled, ‘Oliver amazed at the Dodger’s Mode of Going to Work,’ by George Cruikshank. From Wikimedia commons
Confirming Identity

Before systematic dental records or DNA analysis, listing the contents of a deceased person’s pockets was a key method by which he or she might be identified. Posters or fliers hastily pasted up or distributed in the local area in the aftermath of an accident together with newspaper reports advertised such information in the hope that someone would come forward who could put a name to a body. Passersby and newspaper readers - perhaps inspired by the new Victorian literary genre of detective fiction -  might well have fancied themselves amateur  forensic scientists as they pored over the details of someone else’s pockets. By way of example, here are three cases in which the contents of pockets played an illuminating part.

On December 12th 1867, the Western Daily Press recorded that a man’s body had been recovered from a train line and (graphically) that ‘not a particle of the face remained…; the different members of the body were so cut up as almost to preclude the possibility of telling what they were.’ After an examination of the contents of the pockets of this sorry fellow, identification was enabled by the finding of a handkerchief with the embroidered name ‘ Charles Bridges’ in its corner. It turned out that the dead man was a local Birmingham solicitor who had committed suicide.

Beyond identity, the contents of pockets could point obliquely to a deceased person’s final movements and even to the reason for his or her death. The Derbyshire Times of Saturday February 3rd 1877, for example, described the case of a woman who had stepped (either accidentally or purposefully) onto a railway line at Dronfield, Derbyshire and been killed by a train. At the Midland Hotel where her remains were examined, the ‘loose pocket which had been tied around her’ was found to contain: a purse containing ‘6 shillings, 1 and a half pence, a small penknife, a key, and six pawn tickets. The whole of the tickets bore the name of Ann Moran. One of them had been issued by Mr Wilcockson, Chesterfield; two by Miss Ellen Laughton, Sheffield; one by Messrs Wright Brothers, one by Messrs. Tyrer brothers and another by Messrs. Samuel Hull and John Vickers, of the same place.’ Quite apart from establishing Ann Moran’s name, the pawn tickets – their sheer number and the fact that they had been issued by so many different pawn shops -  give an indication of the likely state of Ann Moran’s finances and emotional state at the time she died. Was this a suicide brought about by acute poverty?

Even more reminiscent of a fictional crime story were the contents of the pockets of seventeen-year-old weaver Mary Alice Goldsborough who was  found drowned in a canal at Bingley, Yorkshire, (in 1895) having been dismissed three days earlier from her job as a weaver in a local factory for poor work. According to the Leeds Times of 15th December that year, her pockets contained ‘a black purse without any money, a pair of scissors, a burling iron (a tool she would have needed her employment), a red cotton pocket handkerchief, and a ‘Duchess’ novelette. The girl was described any those who had known her as a sulky child who spoke little. The last conversation she had with a colleague, as reported in the paper, included the exclamation that she was going to “‘Jack it!’” From these details it is possible to guess at what probably happened to Mary, a girl fed up of the humdrum factory life (evidenced by the burling iron - a necessary tool for her employment in the factory), who spent her time imagining a much more luxurious and romantic life (evidenced by the novel and the red handkerchief), who lost her job and had no money (evidenced by the empty purse) and who thus decided to take her own life.

Men’s Pockets

Pockets seem to have emerged properly sometime in the seventeenth century when they replaced girdles worn outside the clothing and hung with tools and accessories. A man’s pocket was not separate from his garments but sewn onto them and, depending on his class status, a male ancestor may have had many pockets - in his breeches or trousers, waistcoat, and frockcoat or overcoat, for example. Early male pockets were positioned in the outside of clothing which made them highly susceptible to thieves. Later pockets, however, were sewn into male garments and accessed through a slit in the seams.

Women’s Pockets

Women’s pockets were originally not sewn into their garments but rather tied around their waists on long strings, often in pairs. Alternatively, some had loops or buttons so that they could be attached to other garments. From the eighteenth century onwards, there was a greater need for women to have pockets – there were simply more affordable small objects around and women increasingly had more reasons to be outside the house visiting others, shopping and accessing entertainment. Slits in the side of dresses (and petticoats) allowed women to reach these so-called ‘tie-on’ pockets.  

From about the 1840s, dress patterns for the first time show women’s pockets being sewn inside their clothes, invisible but accessible, although large and robust tie-on pockets (rather than the earlier delicate and embroidered versions) continued to be popular. In the early twentieth-century, women’s pockets finally took second place to the more robust handbag.

Useful websites and books

Barbara Burman, ‘Pocketing the Difference: Gender and Pockets in Nineteenth-Century Britain’, in (eds) Barbara Burman and Carole Turbin Material Strategies: Dress and Gender in Historical Perspective, Oxford, Blackwell 2003 A History of Pockets – The Victoria and Albert Museum  Information from the Victoria and Albert Museum on pockets and their history including a gallery of paintings in which you are encouraged to ‘spot the pocket’. Juvenile crimes of the nineteenth century including pickpocketing

This article first appeared in Family Tree Magazine in early 2016.

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

#pockets #fashionhistory #ancestors #ancestry #familyhistory #genealogy #familytree

Buying Miss Weeton

Buy from Wigan Archives, Leigh Town Hall,WN7 1DY

£20 plus £2.80 postage and packing

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Thursday, 13 October 2016

New book - Miss Weeton : Governess and Traveller

Miss Weeton : Governess and Traveller

Edited by Alan Roby, with an introduction by Ruth A. Symes

Written in solitude, Miss Nelly Weeton’s letters, journal entries and other autobiographical writings reveal a formidable woman as they vividly transport the reader through Georgian England.  With breathtaking cathartic candour, she reveals the sources of her protracted pain through years of betrayal, intimidation, humiliation and greed.

When her sea captain father was mortally wounded in the American War of Independence, her heart-broken mother removed from Lancaster to Up Holland village, near Wigan, to begin a new life with her two children.  At the age of 31, Nelly finally broke free from the myopic discouragement of those closest to her.  Armed only with determination, a passion for literature and an unshakeable piety, she left the ‘licentious’ village of Up Holland, to eventually gain employment in the homes of the gentry.

With a penchant for excitement and adventure, Miss Weeton rivetingly describes her high risk ‘outside’ stage coach journey to and from London, and her walking and climbing excursions around the Isle-of-Man and North Wales. Her lone ascents of both Snaefell and Snowdon, supported only by a parasol and slippery-soled leather shoes, remain amazing feats of endurance.
On the 5th of June 1812, fortified by three boiled eggs, a crust of bread and wearing a slouch straw hat, a grey stuff jacket, with her map and memorandum book in a bag, she boldly ‘sallied forth’ alone for 35 miles...

#Regency #ellenweeton #womenwriters #letters

Publication of Miss Weeton : Governess and Traveller

Delighted to announce the publication of Miss Weeton: Governess and Traveller edited by Alan Roby  and with an introduction by me.

Alan and I have hoth been interested in this remarkable woman writer for decades,. I'm so excited to see this new edition of her works in print with so much useful supplementary information on her life and times,

Well done Alan - quite an achievement

More details on the launch in another post.

More details on the book at

#wigan #wmenwriters #ellenweeton #missweeton #nineteenthcentury #Regency

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Little Emperors - Was Your Ancestor An Only Child?

Little Emperors - Was Your Ancestor An Only Child?  

Click here for more on books by Ruth A Symes

If you are used to the pleasures of hanging more and more sibling names on the family tree, it can often be a bit of a surprise, and perhaps a puzzle, to come across an ancestor dangling from a branch all alone. But why might this have been the case? Does his or her ‘singleton’ status have any significance in the history of your family? And how can you check that he or she really was an only child?

In the late nineteenth century there was a tendency among the middle classes for couples to wait longer before marrying -  a fact which inevitably limited the number of children that they had.

Credit: Girls’ Own Paper, Vol vi, No. 279, May 2nd 1885.

Why Just One?
If your ancestor was an only child, he or she is likely to have felt a little unusual. Victorian families – at all levels – tended to be big. Indeed, there was a general feeling in society that to be an only child was an aberration that was in some way detrimental to the health and happiness of that child. The Bible described women as ‘fruitful vines,’ with the many children of the happiest families attractively portrayed as ‘olive shoots around the table.’ The late eighteenth-century philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau had insisted that ‘the sweetest pleasures that exist are those brought about by domestic life’ and called for all middle- and upper- class women to bear at least four children, Many other great thinkers supported him in advocating a large family as the only proper end of marriage.

Caption: Larger families were very much the norm in the Victorian period.  In the early 1880s, 15% of women had as many as ten live births.

Credit: The Girls’ Own Paper, The Leisure Hour Office, Vol. VIII, No 374.

In such a climate of marital fecundity, only children tended to be pitied and even shunned. The fiercely independent fictional character Jane Eyre (1848) was tragically isolated in part by her status as an only child. Of course, many such youngsters had attendant miseries to bear. The majority had achieved their only child status because of maternal (or perhaps paternal) death or because of the death of other siblings. Percy Florence Shelley born in 1819 was brought up as the only child of the Gothic writer Mary Shelley, for example, because his three brothers and sisters died in early childhood and his father was drowned in 1822. Queen Victoria was the only child to result from the marriage of her parents Prince Edward Duke of Kent and Strathearn and Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. In fact, however, she had a half sister, Feodora, and a half brother, Carl, (both much older than her) from her mother’s first marriage to Prince Charles of Leiningen. Although fond of her sister, in particular, Victoria was brought up as if she was an only child and as the recent TV drama showed spent a great deal of time making imaginary friends of her dolls!

Researching the lives of your ancestors, through censuses and certificates, may well reveal that their experiences were shaped, positively or negatively, by their status as only children. My great-grandfather, William Symes (1855-1907), an only child, faced poverty as an agricultural labourer in rural Somerset in the 1880s. After the death of both his parents (and of a first wife and child) he was free of close familial ties – a situation which probably helped him to make the move over 200 miles North to Manchester where he became a carrier for the railways. William’s later life, also seems to me to have been shaped by his position as an only child. The 1891 and 1901 censuses reveal that as an adult he immersed himself in the large family of his second wife. His ten brothers- and sisters-in-law became his neighbours and work colleagues and he also fathered six children of his own, as if in an effort to surround himself with the kin that he had never had as a boy.
As the nineteenth century progressed, and national wealth grew, the size of families in Britain, as in other developed countries, shrank. By the early twentieth century, families of three or four children were replacing those of ten and twelve. But only children were still rare animals. Occasionally middle-class families chose to have just one child in order to concentrate time and resources on its education. A further reason for the phenomenon of the only child was the (occasional) later age of marriage for women. The Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning married at 40 and had just one son, known as ‘Pen’, at the age of 43. One of my own great-great aunts, a shoe-shop assistant, Lilly Terrell, born in 1887, was an only child. The mystery of why this might have been the case was solved when, on checking the 1901 census, I noticed that Lily’s mother, Rebecca, was six years older than her father, Charles, and would have been 38 when Lilly was born.

In the third decade of the twentieth century, more married couples started to actively choose to limit their families. Difficult economic times, between the two World Wars, led some parents to feel that they could afford only one child. With increasing equality in the workplace and a generally more emancipated view of life, many women chose to go back to work after one child. Chief amongst the reasons for the new smaller families, of course, was the better availability of reliable and inexpensive contraceptives from the 1930s onwards.
Only children have become much more common since the 1970s. Some are the result of the new tendency towards later marriages, some of infertility, marriage breakdown or of a conscious lifestyle choice on the part of parents. Economic factors continue to play their part in decisions about family size and it has been suggested that the provision of methods of birth control is one of the few industries that is booming during the latest recession!

Was my ancestor really an only child?

Unfortunately, checking whether or not your ancestor actually had any siblings can mean spending huge amounts of time trawling through parish registers or birth indexes for the areas in which your ancestor’s parents lived looking for the likely names and dates of the birth of siblings. If your family has a common surname, this can be very frustrating work – and, since it involves sending off for birth certificates, to check details –  can also be quite expensive.  

The censuses from 1841-1911 (available now at many commercial internet sites) will show you whether or not your ancestor had siblings who were living at the same address when they were children. But, of course, it is possible that brothers and sisters were out of the house on the night that the census was taken and they may therefore not be recorded at their normal address. It is also sometimes the case that some children in a family (occasionally several) may have been born and died between the ten-year censuses and will, therefore not appear. My great-great grandmother, Lydia Cooke, appears to be childless in both the 1861 and 1871 censuses, yet she had actually had four children in-between-times who had died.

Helpfully, the 1911 census (sometimes known as ‘The Fertility Census’) required families to record how many live births there had been in the marriage and how many of those children were still surviving. It may be that your ancestor was an only child by 1911 because he had lost a couple of siblings earlier on.

Useful Books

J. A. Banks, Prosperity and Parenthood: A Study of Family Planning Among the Victorian Middle Classes, Gregg Revivals, 1993.

Kate Fisher, Birth Control, Sex and Marriage in Britain, 1918-1960, OUP, 2006.

Eilidh Garrett et al, Changing Family Size in England and Wales: Place, Class and Demography, 1891-1911, CUP, 2001.

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#Fertility Census