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, 26 May 2017

Helen Stratton Original Watercolour - For sale

Beautiful original watercolour painting by Victorian/Edwardian artist and children's book illustrator

Helen Stratton (1867-1961)

   For Sale

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Helen Stratton, Walberswick Marshes

             Walberswick Marshes, Suffolk c 1910 ?

Signed by the artist

Detail from Walberswick Marshes - Walberswick bridge

Date unknown. An original delicate watercolour painting on card (unframed) believed to be by the artist Helen Stratton (24.5 cm x 27.5cm or 9.5 inches x 10.5 inches). Stratton is a highly-regarded illustrator of children's fairy tales. Signed with initials in bottom right-hand corner (active 1891-1925). Framer's plate (which is separate, but which has presumably been on the back of the picture when framed) gives provenance - Walberswick Marshes - Helen Stratton - and her London address: 113 Abingdon Road, Kensington. The picture, in greens and blues, is of a bridge over marshland. Walberswick in Suffolk was a haven for artists in the 1890s and 1900s and is associated with Philip Wilson Steer and his circle of English Impressionists. The card has suffered a little acidification from the original backing boards. Corners worn, one slightly split, some browning to edges, and light brown staining to top left edge, about 1.5cm wide. Otherwise very good. Bookseller Inventory # C15466

For more on Helen Stratton Other illustrations by Helen Stratton

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Friday, 19 May 2017

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Thursday, 18 May 2017

Search My Ancestry: Free Users' Guide to Finding British Historical Ne...

Search My Ancestry: Free Users' Guide to Finding British Historical Ne...: National Newspapers/Regional Newspapers/Papers of Special Interest By Ruth A. Symes (Tweeting @RuthaSymes) Many historic Br...

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Mother's Day USA - A Mother's Record - Baby Books and Family History

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 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.

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.

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. 

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.

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!

Useful Books and Websites

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

This article first appeared in the Discover My Past England 2010

USA: To buy my book on family relationships in the past especially motherhood, Family First: Tracing Relationships in the Past, click below

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Free Guide to Free Digitised Books (Helpful to Family Historians) online

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Books, Books, Books

Our family history research can lead us in some strange directions and up some new paths to find out more about subjects that we knew nothing about before. Whether you are interested in discovering more about an ancestor’s place of birth, his or her occupation, customs from the time at which he or she lived, or any one of thousands of other issues, you should be aware that there will probably have been a book (and possibly many books) published on the subject in the past.

Nowadays you can do your family history reading anywhere. By Mia5793 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Nowadays, however, the content of huge numbers of old books are freely available at the click of a button over the internet. Whole texts of books can be accessed (and searched) on screen within seconds from the comfort of your own living room. You can read such treasures straightaway online or download them to another device such as a Kindle, iPhone or Ipad for future consumption, providing that your device has a ‘reader’ for the book format that is on offer. Additionally, in many cases, books can be downloaded as searchable pdf files which can be easily read by most desktop and handheld computers.  A very useful article on the different ways of reading books via electronic devices is at 

Whether you have a particular title in mind or just want to browse areas in which you are interested, here are some of the top websites to get you started.

Some large sites of general interest

Man Reading - John Singer Sargent, undated. Wikimedia Commons

1.     Internet Archive

A not-for-profit archive including millions of digitised books. Special collections include: American Libraries, Canadian Libraries, European Libraries and Project Gutenberg (see below).

2.     Digital Books Index

This includes a wide range of texts from the ‘highly scholarly to the contemporary and popular.’ It is a Meta-index for most major e-book sites as well as thousands of smaller specialist sites. Over 14000 of the 165,000 texts are available for free.

3.     Universal Digital Library Repository

This project has the long term aim of digitising all the books ever written! Between 2006 and 2007, however, it achieved a smaller goal of digitising 1 million books (The Million Book Digital Library Project). The project was initiated at Carnegie Mellon University and has participating universities in places as far away as China, India and Egypt. More books are continually being scanned at 50 global centres.

4.     Project Gutenberg

This project provides the free full text of over
50,000 free e-books (mainly pre-1930s and so out of copyright) which can be read online or downloaded. There is no fee or registration process on this site but readers are encouraged to donate a small amount towards the cost of further digitisation projects.

5.     Wikibooks

This is a ‘collaborative book authoring’ website. Volunteer users from all over the world work together to write textbooks and other types of instructional books on many topics. If you have an area of specialty, you could join in. Otherwise, search the site to see if there is anything that might help your research.  

6.    The E-server

This site hosts short writings by over 35,000 writers, editors and scholars. The history section has items on such diverse topics as ‘medieval carpentry’ and ‘Russia 1914-1917.’ The non-fiction section includes the full text of such key historical works as Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams.  

7.     Just Free Books

Searches the content of more than 700 websites that offer books without charge, including, and

8.     Google Books

More than 2 million full text books now in the public domain are available for free via this site. Many more copyrighted books are included via excerpts and snippets.   

9.     Hathi Trust

Based on a partnership of academic & research institutions, this offers millions of titles digitized from libraries around the world. It includes the full text of books, monographs and pamphlets out of copyright and covers the arts and humanities, sciences and social sciences. You can also search for individual words within books.

10.  Internet Public Library

This site, hosted by the University of Michigan, is no longer adding new material but it can still be searched. It has over 16,000 texts searchable by author, title or Dewey Decimal Classification and is especially strong on 19th century English language items.

 11.   British Library


Access to digitised copies of some manuscripts and books in the British Library’s collections, with descriptions of their contents. The site currently features the full text of the Library's latest major acquisition, the St Cuthbert Gospel.

Links to free digitised early manuscripts and books elsewhere on the web.


Links to free digitised facsimiles of early manuscripts and books elsewhere on the web. 

12. British History Online

A digital library, (founded by the Institute of Historical Research and the History of Parliament Trust in 2003), of key printed primary and secondary sources for the history of Britain and Ireland mainly between 1300 and 1800.   

13.  Humanities Text Initiative

Whilst this huge database (hosted by the University of Michigan) focuses on American history, there is a section on British and Irish studies. Of particular interest might be the links to Eighteenth Century Collections Online ( and Early English Books online (

14.  Europeana Collections
Explore 53,050,578 artworks, artefacts, books, videos and sounds from across Europe. Explore 53,050,578 artworks, artefacts, books, videos and sounds from across Europe.
A multi-lingual portal for over 53 million artefacts including searchable books (as well as images, music, and multimedia) housed in museums and other cultural institutions across Europe.

15.  World Digital Library

Content includes books, manuscripts, maps, newspapers, journals, prints and photographs, sound recordings, and films which can be browsed by place, time, topic, type of item, language, and contributing institution. Each item is accompanied by an item-level description (in seven different languages) that explains its significance and historical context. Books, manuscripts, maps, and other primary materials on the site are presented in their original languages (one of over a hundred!) and are not translated.  

Man and Woman Reading a Book, Carl Mautz Collection of cartes-de-visites photographs By Beinecke Library [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Some specialist digitised book collections

There are, of course, many, many, more online digital libraries focusing on particular subject areas or offering specialist services. These might include, for instance, books about a particular region, a particular time period or a particular discipline such as politics, religion or literature. These libraries might offer books in different languages, or in different formats, and e-texts to ‘borrow’ as well as to keep. Here are a selected few of the best just to whet your appetite.

1.     National Library of Wales

Includes 25,000 e-books many of them available in Welsh and on Welsh themes.

2.     Historical Directories (England and Wales)


Digitised local and trade directories for England and Wales, 1760s to 1810

3.     Histories of Scottish Families


Collection of histories of old Scottish families digitized by the National Library of Scotland. Transcriptions have been provided for each page.

4.     Manx Note Book

General information on the Isle of Man in history including some full-text digital books and old guidebooks. 

5.     Victorian Women Writers


Transcriptions of works by lesser-known British women writers of the 19th century, including poetry, novels, children's books, political pamphlets, and religious tracts. Hosted by Indiana University. 

6.     Fabian Society


Digitised versions of papers and published tracts by members of the Fabian society (1884-2000) – a great influence on the Labour movement.  Early members included George Bernard Shaw, Sidney Webb and Emmeline Pankhurst.
Includes digitised seminal texts by key Marxists which can be downloaded.

8.     Wellcome Library Digital Collection
The Library's digital collections include books on a wide variety of topics, including asylums, food, sex and sexual health, genetics, public health and war.

9.     International Children’s Digital Library


A collection of historical and children’s books from around the world in many different languages. The site is hosted by the International Children’s Library Digital Foundation.

10. World War One Document Archive

Includes digitised documents and books relating to World War One.

11. Bartleby (Literature)

Literature, reference and verse including a digital version of the Bible online, should you need one!

12.  Open Library

This American site has thousands of free e-books and many more which can be ‘borrowed’ for two weeks. It is helpfully organised not only by subject but also by time period. Many of the books are available in several different formats so that you can choose the one most convenient to you.

13. Bibliomania

Thousands of free e-books, poems, articles, short stories and plays. This site has the added feature of a Discussion board at the bottom of the page on any book or author where you can ask questions or post opinions.

14. Eighteenth Century Collections online

If you want to take things a little further back in the past, try this site for full text versions of many books published in the eighteenth century.

Boxout: Hands-free: Why not listen to your books?

In this busy world, it is sometimes just more convenient to listen to a book in your car or whilst doing something else, rather than to read it online.

15.  Librivox

This is a non-profit-making organisation, run by volunteers. Anyone - regardless of accent -  can send in audio recordings of whole books or chapters of books in any language which are then released back on to the net for free. The texts are provided by Project Gutenberg (see above) and the Internet Archive (see above) hosts the audio files.  
For other interesting and free audio books see, Open Culture (; Thought Audio (www.;; and Podiobooks (

Woman Reading at a Table (undated) - Collection of National Media Museum, @FlickrCommons @WikimediaCommons

Top Tips:  Many old books, of course, have not (yet) been digitised but you can still use the internet to find out the location of an old-fashioned hard copy. Use either: or to search for titles held in the British Library and UK and Irish academic, national and specialist libraries. To locate the nearest (ordinary public) library to you that holds the book you are looking for enter the name of the book and your postcode at And if you wish to buy an old book, don’t forget that many rare titles come up for sale (and often quite cheaply) at and  

This article first appeared in Family Tree Magazine UK in February 2017

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Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Read my full article on Queen Victoria's love of Whisky

'Dram-er' Queen

Cask and Still Magazine

page 20 onwards.

Click on link below to read entire magazine

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#ancestors #ancestry #familyhistory #familyhistorybooks #genealogy #ancestryhour, #ruthasymes #ww1 #ancestors #ancestry #familyhistory #familytree #genealogy #ancestryhour #genchat #whisky #alcohol #QueenVictoria #Victorian #whiskey #Scotland #Scottish #Scotch #malts #JohnBrown