Essential Reading

'I have been a family historian for more than 40 years, and a professional historian for over 30, but as I read it, I was constantly encountering new ways of looking at my family history....Essential reading I would say!' Alan Crosby, WDYTYA Magazine

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Your Ancestors' Letters: Tips for Research 7: What can you learn from the addresses ?

Do the addresses on your ancestors' letters still exist as homes or businesses today? Do they reflect differences or similarities between the social class of the sender and of the recipient?

You can check whether old addresses still exist by visiting But be careful, houses in a street may have been renumbered and streets might have been renamed.

You might also look at local maps online or at historical maps of the locality in local libraries.
See  Local maps in the National Archives UK

Trade directories for local areas can tell you for what purposes buildings might have used in the past and, in some cases, who might have lived and worked in them.
Historic Trade Directories held by Leicester University

Postcodes did not exist at the time the first national British Postal Service started  (ie 1840). They were developed gradually over the 1850s and 1860s, starting in London. But, they were not as long and complex as they are today. In fact, the type of postcodes with which we are familiar did not come about until 1974.

More Information on Postal Heritage UK

The Welcome Letter by George Hardy, 1879. From Wikimedia Commons

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Monday, 4 May 2020

Your Ancestors' Letters: Tips for Research (6) Who licked the stamp?

From their first issue in 1840, postage stamps had an adhesive backs but still required wetting or licking. Today, it is theoretically possible - though expensive - to have the back of an envelope or a stamp tested for DNA. To work, the stamp or envelope would have to be carefully preserved and removed from sources of contamination. The DNA would need to checked against that of a living descendant of the putative stamp licker.

Image: Penny Black stamp - first issued in 1840. From Wikimedia Commons.

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Your Ancestors' Letters: Tips for Research (5): Why was a letter always more than a letter?

Did your ancestor leave a letter?

Tips for Research 5

What can you learn from the physical aspects of your family letter? Ask questions about its length, the type of paper upon which it was written, the existence of an envelope, the way it was sealed, its overall look and feel.

Letters were the embodiment of a significant relationship between a sender and a receiver. The overall look of a letter was thought to be an indicator of the social standing, character and personality of the person who sent it. Holding a letter - even kissing it - was fancied to be a way of getting close to the person who had last held and sealed it.

Tracing Your Ancestors Through Letters and Personal Writings

Image: Penning a Letter by George Goodwin Kilburne, 1839. From Wikimedia Commons.

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Friday, 1 May 2020

Your Ancestors' Letters: Tips for Research (4): Why was this letter written at all ?

What was the main purpose of your ancestor's letter? What were its secondary purposes?

Is your family missive primarily a conveyer of news, or a letter of condolence, love, rejection, recommendation, thanks, congratulation, consolation or commiseration. Each of these kinds of letters had its own special characteristics and in the Victorian period, there were published books advising people how to set about writing letters of each kind. Letters also rarely served one purpose only, so look out for the moments where the purpose of the letter changes.
It is always very helpful when examining a letter from the past to read it out loud - especially if the purpose isn't immediately obvious.

Tracing Your Ancestors Through Letters and Personal Writings

Image: Woman reading a Worrisome Letter from her Husband, Once a Week, 1863, by George Swain via Wikimedia Commons

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Thursday, 30 April 2020

Your Ancestor's Letters: Tips for Research (3): How many people wrote/read this letter?

Your letter was not necessarily written by one family member to one other person. Often letters were joint efforts by several members of an extended family in one place, writing to several other members if the family living in another place. Imagine all the hands (and brains!) that might have had an input into your family letter, all the eyes that might have read it and all the ears that might have had its contents read out to them . Different paragraphs of a single letter might have had different intended audiences with some less personal bits being read out to friends and acquaintances as interesting news from another part of the country or even another country. Sometimes letter writers wrote personal information at the tops and bottoms of letters with the understanding that the main recipient would read and remove these before the letter was passed around to a wider audience. Alternatively separate sheets within the letter might carry information meant for different readers.

Tracing Your Ancestors Through Letters and Personal Writings

Two unidentified women reading a letter between 1860 and 1870
Via Wikimedia Commons

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Your Ancestors' Letters: Tips for Researc (1) : Who paid the postage?

Prior to 1840, the cost of a letter was borne by its recipient and depended upon the number of sheets included in the envelope and the number of miles covered for it to reach its destination - and postage fees differed in different parts of the country. In May 1840 Uniform Penny postage (using adhesive postage stamps began). Provided the letter weighed less than half an ounce our ancestors could send a letter anywhere in England for a penny. And from then onwards postage was paid by the sender.

Tracing Your Ancestors Through Letters and Personal Writings

Image :Letter from Henry Gould 1887 via Wikimedia Commons

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Your Ancestors' Letters: Tips for Research (2) : When exactly was this letter sent/received?

What was the likely gap in time between the writing of and the receipt of your family letter?
Look out for letters that give not only the date but also the time of day eg 'Friday afternoon', 'Tuesday 6pm' etc. At some points in the Victorian period, in London, people could expect post to be delivered up to 12 times a day (even in provincial towns local post could be delivered up to six times a day) which meant that letters could go back and forth with almost the regularity of today's emails.

Tracing Your Ancestors Through Letters and Personal Writings

Image: Illustrated letter from Beatrix Potter to a child, 21st August 1892,  from Wikimedia Commons

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Sunday, 19 January 2020

Megxit: ‘Dollar Princesses’: What Our Ancestors Made of American Women

This article was originally published in Discover Your Ancestors Online Periodical in January 2019

Republishing this today on my blog to see what it might add to the debate!

The Dollar Princess: Miss Gabrielle Ray (1883-1973) as Daisy in the Edwardian musical comedy  ‘The Dollar Princess,’ which took a satirical look at American heiresses, London, 1909. Bassano Photo, Bain News Service,Via Wikimedia Commons.

With actress Meghan Markle marrying Prince Harry in May 2018, the issue of how we Brits perceive American women has been a matter of great public interest in recent times. Markle is of course bi-racial, with an African-American mother and a white father (a background that inevitably complicates public reaction to her), but the white American women who came to Britain in the past in one capacity or another have, in fact, always provoked debate and controversy.

Looks and Health

As with much historical commentary on women, it was the appearance of American females that caught the attention of many British commentators and there were many positive attributes to admire. The Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser  (May 14th 1892) commented on their overall robustness, ‘the frankness of their eyes, the naturalness of their emotions and their general genuineness.’ In November and December 1882, many English newspapers, carried further approbation (quoting research conducted by the North American Review) suggested that the health of American women was better than that of their British sisters and that consequently, ‘the period of possible maternity is two years longer in American women than in the women of other English-speaking nations!’ 

Fashion and Expenditure

Known by the British mostly in their role as performers (actresses on the stage and later screen), tourists and heiresses – transatlantic women were stereotypically described as being the owners of large leather Saragota trunks stuffed with expensive clothing. In 1910, the Aberdeen Press and Journal published an article entitled ‘American Women’s Extravagance’ which described the phenomenon of the affluent US dame with a mixture of disgust and envy:  ‘It seems that there are 100 women in New York known to spend 150,000 dollars every year in dress, more than 1000 others lay out $75,000 on the toilette; 15,000 others have to make 3,000 dollars suffice.’

The same newspaper also made the rather unlikely claim that American women used ‘milk or champagne […] for the morning bath,’ and cited the shocking example of ‘a little dog owned by one wealthy woman which was wrapped in a coat of real ermine and had a collar of diamonds.’ Diamonds, indeed, were a big feature of British commentary on the lavishness of the American female. The previously-mentioned article went on to claim that American women… have millions of pounds worth of diamonds quite apart from their collections of other stones. The jewels are worn according to the occasions, and one woman will be heard asking another about her ‘summer diamonds’ and her ‘winter diamonds’ and so on.’ It was also noted that such women wore jewellery in the daytime as well as during the evening – something that, to the British, smacked of gross vanity and self-indulgence. American men, pointed out the same article, were quick to justify their womenfolk’s profligacy “‘Why,’ says an American when any criticism of the way in which his country women spend, ‘it is their own money. Their husbands made it; why should they not spend it as they like?’”  

Woman with Book Woman with Book by William McGregor Paxton, c. 1910. The American novelist, Henry James, - who might be supposed to have been rather biased in his opinions  - once commented that ‘one of her charms is that she does not make a guy of herself,’ and opined that ‘if [he] had to be born again, [he] would shout at the top of his voice, ‘Make me an American woman.’
Via Wikimedia Commons. New Britain Museum of American Art, Connecticut.

Temperament and Talk

Whilst the American journalist Nellie Bly (1864-1922) found British women ‘over-sheltered’, too confined to the home and, most shockingly, not at all inclined to express their opinions, British men found US women strident and forthright, very willing to put forward their point of view whether or not they were asked for it. Indeed, on this side of the Atlantic, there was a general horror at the garrulousness of American women. In September 1896 the London Daily News reported with disgust how an American bride had walked down the aisle on the arm of her father ‘chatting and laughing as unconcernedly as if she was in a ballroom’. The same article concluded that ‘the American woman is unquestionably a terror to many of the sterner sex.’

American Women Smoking This Punch cartoon, showing an unattractive woman smoking in a tunic and trousers, was the stereotype of a certain type of masculine American woman in London in the mid-nineteenth century. Punch, 1851, Via Wikimedia Commons

Education and equality

In general, American women were considered to have had better education and to enjoy greater legal rights than their British counterparts. It was remarked that in some States, more severe punishments were meted out to husbands who had committed domestic violence, and that there was better access to divorce, than in Britain. These supposed social advancements were decried by some and critics drew attention to the fact that, despite their superior education, very few American women had produced anything of any worth in the world of art and literature (The London Daily News, September 30th, 1896). Others, however, saw the more egalitarian education of American females as something to which Britain ought to aspire. In a series of articles comparing British culture to that of other countries, Sir Charles Dilke wrote,‘there is far greater equality of the sexes in America than there is here for the simple reason that American women are educated to be much more independent and self-reliant than ours.’ (The Eastern Daily Press, April 30th, 1887)

The Dollar Princesses

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, several prominent members of the British aristocracy were particularly ‘delighted and captivated’ by American women.  Despite some public repugnance at transatlantic marriages, it was generally acknowledged that the fortunes of these ‘dollar princesses’ were helping to shore up the fortunes of our crumbling nobility. Some American-British nuptials left an important social and political legacy. More often than not such alliances were presented to the public as hotbeds of  infidelity, outlandish fashion and obscene wealth. Jennie Jerome (1850 or 1854-1921), a society beauty from Brooklyn, married Lord Randolph Churchill in 1874 and became the mother of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. After the death of Winston’s father in 1895, Jennie married two further ‘toy-boy’ husbands (one of whom nickamed her ‘Pussycat’) and died after tripping down a friend’s staircase whilst wearing a new pair of high-heeled shoes!

Fanny Burk (1857-1947 was an American heiress who appeared in the Four Hundred – an index to New York’s ‘best families.’ She married the Honourable James Boothby Burke Roche (later third Baron Fermoy) and would become the great-grandmother of Diana, Princess of Wales. After her divorce in 1891, she was the subject of a well-publicised trial in which her husband accused her of keeping their daughter prisoner! 

Chicago-born Mary Leiter (1870-1906), the model for Lady Grantham in TV’s Downton Abbey, married Conservative M.P. George Curzon, (later Lord Curzon of Kedleston) and subsequently became Vicereine of India. Though she gained notoriety as ‘the best dressed woman in the world,’ wearing a dress adorned with peacock feathers at the Coronation of Edward VII, Leiter was also known for her compassion, opening hospitals for women in India and helping to save an endangered species of rhinoceros. 
Mary Leiter: Mary Leiter, American wife of Lord Curzon. A striking and ‘curvaceous’ beauty at 6 foot 2, this popular ‘dollar princess’ acquired two inherently British titles: Baroness Curzon of  Kedleston and Viceriene of India. Portrait by Franz von Lenbach, 1902.  Via Wikimedia Commons

By the time then that twice-divorced Wallis Simpson appeared as the love interest of the future Edward VIII in the mid 1930s, the British public had already had a whole host of extraordinary, multiply-divorced and controversial American women to draw upon. Simpson’s almost universal vilification was, therefore, just about unavoidable and it intensified when Edward abdicated in order to marry her. With this background, Megahn Markle can be forgiven if she approached her new role as the Duchess of Sussex with some trepidation! 

If Only Women Knew: Virginia Lee and Robert Gordon in the American film, ‘If Women Only Knew,’1921. Accounts and images of female actresses on stage and screen – in which they invariably appeared to have more independence and freedom than British women - were just about the only source of information on American women a century ago, and necessarily distorted public opinion. Via Wikimedia Commons. Still from the American film If Women Only Knew, Cayuga Pictures, from an advert on page 79 of the magazine Photoplay, (August 1921)

Regular American Girls

Those US ladies who married into the aristocracy were objects of fascination and vilification in the British press, but it should be remembered that these opinions were based on general impressions of  a very small group of people  - the wealthy set or ‘It’ girls of the time, if you like, - in New York. But, thousands of ordinary women of American birth can also be found in the decennial British censuses (by typing in the optional keyword 'American' on the commercial genealogical website, for example).To pick a few at random, these women include 30 year old Elsie Abeling, a ‘singer-vocalist’ from ‘Richmond, America’, who found herself a patient at Chelsea Hospital, Hastings, on the night of the 1901 census; and Edith Butler, (a 21 year old servant to a rich family in Birkenhead) and Mary Allen (the 42 year old wife of a grain merchant’s horseman in Bodmin), both of whom described themselves as ‘American subjects’ on that same census.

An American Girl in London: An American Girl in London’ by Everard Cotes, (1891). Many young American women came to London to work, and in the expectation of marrying, at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps your ancestors too were among these many US girls who came to Britain to visit, work or settle around a century ago. If so, it’s worth thinking about how they might have been received by the families into which they married and the people living in the neighbourhoods they frequented. Their integration into British society might have been smoother than that of those immigrants who spoke other languages or who came from more different backgrounds, but they carried a weight of expectation – positive and negative - all of their own.

Useful Books and Websites

William H. Chafe, The Paradox of Change: American Women in the 20th Century,  Oxford University Press, 1991.

Anne de Courcy, The Husband Hunters: American Heiresses Who Married Into the British Aristocracy, Macmillan USA,  2018.

Carol Faulkner, ed, Women in American History to 1880: A Documentary Reader, Wiley Blackwell, 2011.

Blanche McManus,  The American Woman Abroad, 2012 (originally published 1911).

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