Entries in General genealogy (9)


Big Cats, the Black Shuck and Rampaging Elephants: Norfolk's Menagerie

This week, the local news once again featured a sighting of a Big Cat (capitals added for effect) in Norfolk. Those of us from these parts have seen a large number of these reports in the press in recent years, and indeed going back further – move over Beast of Bodmin! Norfolk and Suffolk have creatures to rival you... 

This time the Norfolk Puma (or Panther, depending on your preference) was reportedly sighted on the Bayfield Hall Estate near Holt. (See Evening News here). Apparently, Norfolk often has more than 50 reported sightings of big cats a year, just ahead of Suffolk, and has one of the highest rates of sightings in the whole of the UK. (For more on this see www.bigcatsinbritain.org/englishnews347.htm).

Big cats are technically those of the ‘Panthera’ genus – lions, tigers, leopards, jaguar and snow leopards. Again technically, pumas and lynxs are not big cats – they are of the ‘Felix’ genus and therefore small cats. Of course, as you might expect, ‘proof’ of these big cats, whether Panthera or Felix, is hard to come by. Scores of people swear they have seen large felines roaming the countryside though, and I would never take it on myself to declare their sightings false. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before someone with a smart phone manages to film such a beast and prove the doubters wrong!

Keeping exotic creatures in menageries was common well before the advent of the modern ‘zoo’. The Tower of London’s collection was thought to have been in existence as early as 1204. Who knows, with our wealth of beautiful country houses and estates in Norfolk and Suffolk, could any of the local aristocracy have indulged in owning exotic cats like William the Conqueror, or Elizabeth I? Could any of these hypothetical animals have escaped? Later on, could the changing of laws in the 70s, requiring licensing of big cats, really have encouraged less well off owners to dump their pets in the East Anglian countryside? And if so, in either case, could they have survived in the wild?

It wouldn’t have been the first time that an unfamiliar animal had wandered lose in Norfolk. The wonderful book “I Read it in the Local Rag” by Pip Wright includes the following passage taken from the Suffolk Chronicle on January 25th, 1845:

“On Friday evening, My Hylton, owner of the caravans of wild beasts on the Castle meadows, Norwich was showing the elephant to the company; the beast showed signs of insubordination. He was directed to kneel and confess his submission to his keeper, but did not obey….the mighty beast just then aimed a tremendous blow at the side of the booth, which at once gave way…and the giant of the forest walked off in spite of all opposition, going through the streets, out of St Stephen’s Gates, on to the London Road…After about two miles to Harford Bridges, he sought pleasure or food amongst the umbrageous woods and scanty foliage of Mr. Alderman Thurtell as if enjoying his pristine liberty in his native wilds.”

It seems on this occasion that the elephant was recaptured but according to the author there were complaints from the public who had already noted that “a lion had already nearly escaped earlier”.

The Tower of London’s menagerie, mentioned above, did not close until a few years after the Zoological Society of London was founded in 1826. You might be surprised to learn that Norfolk had its links with lions in London at least as early as Victoria’s reign, and not through the local gentry but through a working man born in 1828 in a little village. 

Seth Sutton, born in Topcroft, was one of only a few men recorded as working as a “keeper in a menagerie/zoological gardens” in the Victorian census returns. What’s more, he did the job for a very long time -  the 1861, 71, 81, 91 and 1901 censuses all show him in Marylebone – probably working at the gardens we now know as London Zoo. Seth had begun his life as an agricultural labourer, the son of George and Mary Sutton. Based on his children's birthplaces and the census, he must have left have left Norfolk behind for the city between 1851 and 1857.

The Sutton family lived at 2, Calvert’s Cottages, Marylebone, Pancras. Seth resided with his wife Maria (born in Flixton, Suffolk) and their children, less than ten minutes’ walk from the Zoo. By 1901, aged 73, Seth was recorded as “Pensioner (Lion Keeper at Zoo)” and still in London. As an aside, it seems that the census analysts must have had trouble working out what to class his occupation as in the statistics, which required occupations to be split into somewhat inflexible categories. Next to both his occupation and his son Harry’s (who had by then followed in his father’s footsteps) is written the word ‘Dog’, probably so that he would be categorised along with dog breeders and trainers! 

Of course Norfolk doesn’t just boast sightings of big cats and links to lion keepers, we also have big dogs. 

“And a dreadful thing from the cliff did spring, And its wild bark thrill’d around, His eyes had the glow of the fires below, Twas the form of the Spectre Hound”

At least, we have one in particular: the Black Shuck, known by some through its relatively recent addition in a Darkness track (which also namechecked Blythburgh in Suffolk - the “town in the east”) and by many more through its inclusion in myth, legend and folklore for centuries before a few Lowestoft rockers borrowed our Hell Hound for a song.

The beast has been argued to have been part of Norse mythology and the word ‘Shuck’ is said to have derived from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘scucca’ meaning devil or demon.  (For more see http://norfolkcoast.co.uk/myths/ml_blackshuck.htm). Whether or not either (or both) is true, these suggestions nevertheless point to a longstanding belief in the creature. I’ll be watching out for the Grim next time I’m on the road from Overstrand to Cromer as this is where he is said to spend much of his time. Overstrand even used to have a carving of the Black Shuck on its village sign and there is still a ‘Shuck’s Lane’ leading to Runton. 

As you can see from this somewhat varied post, Norfolk’s cat, dog and indeed elephant sightings have taken place over many years and have been discussed by many generations. Doubtless too, they will carry on as the topics of conversations for many years to come.

To conclude, where do I stand on the Big Cat debate? Well, I think that not knowing might be more exciting than knowing the truth!


A Wizarding Genealogy

I admit it. I’m a massive fan of the Harry Potter books and I think J. K. Rowling deserves a lot of praise for creating a fantastic series which will entertain children and adults for decades to come. I hold my head up high when I say I have queued for books at midnight and stayed up all night to find out what would happen next. What a crazy muggle I am.

For tonight’s admittedly less serious blog post I celebrate my re-reading of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows for the umpteenth time with some light-hearted research into the popularity and occurrences of some now well-known names. It is not long since I tweeted that I was researching a family with children named the same as five of the six Weasley brothers. So, I decided to see if I could find any other gems in the records for tonight's installment of the Your Local History blog. 

Hogwarts is mainstream whether you have read the books or not. Yesterday, I spotted an appeal to rehome two cats named Bellatrix Black and Luna Lovegood. (Had the person who named them actually read the books I wondered, Bellatrix and Luna were hardly on the same side?!) Today, I discovered there are plenty of websites helping you have a Harry Potter wedding, decorate a Harry Potter house and that the wiki (harrypotter.wikia.com) has 7961 pages.   

So it appears Harry Potter is everywhere - and even getting in on genealogy. Amongst hundreds of other things, you can view character family trees online, and the study of family history is mentioned frequently throughout the books. Readers will know that the Muggle-Born Registration Commission forced witches and wizards to prove their lineage; that the book Nature’s Nobility:A Wizarding Genealogy contained details of pure-blood families ‘extinct in the male line’; and that the Peverell family, original owners of the Deathly Hallows, were identified in the said book as one of the first families to die out. Family histories of the characters were all explored – from Hagrid’s giant mother and human father to Dumbledore’s hidden sister and goat charming brother, and from Neville’s tortured parents to Ron’s large but poor red-headed wizard family. 

Of course, many mentions of family history in the books were not there in a positive light. Trees provided ways for Death Eaters to prove the mightiness of their blood. However, if the ‘Noble and Most Ancient House of Black’ family tree fixed by a permanent sticking charm to the wall at 12, Grimmauld Place has inspired anyone, particularly perhaps children, to investigate their own roots, then I would like to shake J.K’s hand. I hope however, that any so-inspired individual would celebrate the diversity of their tree rather than ‘prune the edges’ a la Voldemort’s suggestion to Bellatrix! 

So, in search of a little Harry Potter themed genealogy, I turned to a key word census search (and of course there are accuracy draw backs to consider) to discover just how many name sakes were around in England and Wales in 1901. It turns out there were around 250 Harry Potters at the time, eleven in Suffolk and five in Norfolk. Those in Suffolk mostly worked with horses rather than thestrals and those in Norfolk were mostly at school - either teaching or learning - but in day rather than boarding schools. 

It’s hardly surprising to find scores of Harry Potters and hundreds more Harrys - I even found a family headed by a James, with wife Lily and baby son Harry living in Yorkshire (perhaps under an alias to keep away the Dark Lord?).  I was surprised however to find no sign of a Hermione Granger and only a Ronald Wesley, not a Ronald Weasley. As for Ron’s brothers, the Morgans of Monmouthshire, Locks of Surrey and Millers of Gloucestershire all used Charles, George, Frederick, William and Percival for five of their sons. 

Looking at the teachers, a 36 year old Albus appeared working in a Welsh coal mine in 1901. Also in Wales, a Minerva worked as a school mistress. Over in Lancashire, a Master Snape presided over a boarding school. Other characters’ names appear in droves particularly in the north - Luna was most common in Lancashire and Yorkshire as were Neville and Ginny. Remus and Kingsley turned out to be recorded most often in London, Hermione rarely anywhere (transcription error?) and no 'Hagrid' but two 'Hogards' in Wimbledon. 

Where the dark arts are concerned, three men bore the name Tom Riddle - one a cabinet maker and French polisher, another a foreman and another a licensed victualler. It is of course no surprise that Tom’s chosen name later in life appears nowhere in the schedules!

Standing up for the house elves are over 425 individuals with the surname ‘Dobby’, again mostly in Yorkshire, while for the pets, five are recorded with the surname ‘Crookshanks’ and an Abraham ‘Hedwig’ resides in King’s Lynn....

I couldn’t end this post without touching on some local places. Lavenham in Suffolk, squarely in ‘my’ research patch, famously provided the backdrop to some of the scenes in the last HP movie, and the east of England can provide some magical sounding villages good enough to rival Godric’s Hollow or Ottery St Catchpole. Take Marshland St James, Burnham Overy, Tilney Fen End, Dallinghoo, Little Livermere, Great Waldringfield, Walsham le Willows, Nedging-with-Naughton, Three Holes or Bury St Edmunds for starters. Add road names like the Smeeth and Nowhere Lane and you’ve got a novel.

So, there I will bring to a close today’s more unusual blog post – normal service will be resumed next week. I will also do an ad hoc post re my One Lovely Blog Award which I am very much honoured to have received from Sue at Family Folklore. 

I will share just one more thing. If I ever have a son, his name shall be Neville…


“That which we call a Rhoda, by any other name would smell as sweet”

Perhaps the quote is taking it a little far, but given that the meaning of ‘Rhoda’ is ‘Rose’ it is not completely far fetched.

While researching today I came to ponder the usage of the name 'Rhoda'.

How many have you ever met?

I have made the acquaintance of two. One, a lovely colleague; the other, an elderly Great Great Great Aunt. The latter was in fact christened ‘Lilian Rhoda’ but was known by her middle name. I only remember meeting her once – a very sharp old lady I recall - and she died, at the respectable age of 101, when I was only eight. I can trace my love of family history back to her as she spent many years tracing the ‘Walne’ family line long before I was thought of. She inspired my father to investigate our heritage, who in turn inspired me.

Still, back to the topic of the blog.

Rhoda (or Rhodeia, Rhodia, Rhodie, Rhody, Roda, Rodi, Rodie, Rodina). According to thinkbabynames.com, of Greek origin and meaning ‘Rose’ or ‘woman from Rhodes’ (‘Rhodes’ was also derived from the Greek for ‘rose’).

A quick search on my own family tree reveals three women on my direct line with the first name ‘Rhoda’ since 1800 – about 10% of my Grandmothers after that date. Hardly as common as ‘Elizabeth’ (over a third of them, without counting those with Elizabeth as a second name – to think my parents didn’t think it was a family name when they christened me…!) but prominent no less.

In 1880 the name featured in the top 200 girls’ names. Perhaps for its biblical connotations I wonder? Rhoda was noted as a servant girl in Acts 12:12-15.

By 1930 however its popularity dropped to about 300th most common name. By 1940 it had fallen to approximately 500th and by 1960 had crashed to around 900th. Since then it has likely fallen even further.

A quick search of Wikipedia reveals a 1970s sitcom of the same name - but I admit I’ve never seen it. There is also a brief smattering of ‘famous’ Rhodas and a couple of prominent female characters in books of the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

I imagine, as so many other things, the name simply fell out of fashion. Still, with names such as ‘Stanley’ and ‘Florence’ resurging in popularity over the last couple of years, perhaps it is only a matter of time before the name reappears.


“Here, Miss.”


Just starting out? Here are my top ten tips for uncovering your family's history...

When considering how to start this blog I decided it was only logical to begin at the beginning. There is something very special about uncovering your history for yourself, and here are my pearls of wisdom to help you along the way...

1. Start with yourself and work backwards.

This might sound silly but a lot of people end up trying to research the wrong way around. While you might think your family has links to famous (or infamous!) individuals, it is always best to start with what you know rather than try to prove a distant connection from the other end. You never know, you might find something much more exciting closer to home anyway!

2. Talk to people.

Your elderly spinster aunt, your Grandma’s old next-door neighbour (known as your ‘Auntie Ethel’ when you were little), your Grandad’s accountant and the man that used to trim your Great Uncle’s rose bushes; they could all help you make sense of family connections and give insights into the quirks and intricacies of your ancestors’ lives. Don’t forget those closer to home either – it’s surprising how little many of us know about the lives of even our parents and grandparents before we came along. 

3. Explore sources already in your possession, or that of your siblings and parents.

Photographs, letters, bibles, newspaper articles, old paperwork and heir looms all contribute to your family story. Make a note of the names of people in old photographs while there are people around to tell you who they are. These items are invaluable for transforming your research from lists of names and dates to a more colourful understanding of those that came before you. Dates and names you discover in the process can be useful starting points for your research - but beware! Documents might raise more questions than they answer and can contain inaccuracies or fail to mention a key family member altogether. Times have changed over the period most people conduct family history research and I’ve even seen family Bibles where dates have been ‘massaged’ to cover up children born out of wedlock, whether filled in by somebody that didn’t know the truth or deliberately misrecorded the dates to uphold the family’s honour.

4. Don’t trust everything you read.

It might be tempting to copy and paste information from trees available online, but always check other peoples’ conclusions. The internet can be an incredible resource but it also enables quick replication of faulty research. For example, I frequently spot individuals on publicly available trees that apparently continued having children many years after death! Records online have often been transcribed on multiple occasions before they get to a database, and even the original record may have been incorrect. With every new transcription comes the opportunity for error – take into account hand writing, regional accents, low literacy rates and even deliberate lies to enumerators on the part of our ancestors and it is hardly surprising that dates, birthplaces and spellings are often not as we might have expected. Wherever possible try and view the original record.

5. Have patience.

If you put a name and year of birth into a search box don’t expect the top result to always (or even usually!) be the record you’re looking for. As already mentioned, there are several reasons why names, birthplaces and ages are recorded ‘incorrectly’. Add a year or two either side of the individual’s likely birth year, search for a County rather than a village and use wildcards in names and places (for example, searching for ‘Bl*mfield’ will include records for ‘Blomfield’, ‘Bloomfield’, ‘Blumfield’ etc). Some sites allow you to search for keywords instead of names – I once finally found an ancestor by searching for ‘William Pancras Smith’ when his surname (‘Garner’) was transcribed from the census as ‘Bower’ on two popular websites. Keep in mind that first names like ‘William’ and ‘Thomas’ are often recorded as ‘Wm’ and ‘Thos’ and that sons named after their fathers may be known by a middle name or nick name to prevent confusion.

6. Be prepared for inconsistencies.

Ages might be rounded up or down and census dates were different from decade to decade - particularly look out for this on the 1841 census where most adult ages were rounded to the nearest five. Birthplaces might be recorded differently from census to census too. An individual born in Badingham might start recording their birth as Framlingham, Woodbridge or Ipswich for example if they left the immediate area of their birth – imagine trying to explain some of our more interesting Norfolk and Suffolk place names to an enumerator in newly industrialising London. Children may appear under different surnames to that expected, particularly if a couple’s first born arrived before the couple married. In this case the child may appear with their mother’s maiden name on baptism and marriage records but under their father’s surname in the census.

7. Online records are not the be all and end all.

In recent times an enormous amount of family history researchers have begun their family trees online and many have never ventured away from their computer screens. Despite massive leaps forward, and an undeniable wealth of electronic information, the majority of resources are still not available digitally. County record offices and other archives are well worth a visit and the help of staff can be invaluable when hunting down records. Parish registers, wills, bastardy orders, estate, school, commercial and criminal records for example may all be at your fingertips. There is something magical about seeing your ancestor’s real handwriting on an original record. Don’t write off record offices, archives, family history societies etc as scary or stuffy – you might be surprised at the gems you can uncover. Visiting the places mentioned in your research can also be eye opening. In Norfolk and Suffolk we are very lucky to have a huge amount of heritage on our doorsteps. You can stand at the alter where your ancestors said their vows, find old gravestones and in many cases view village and town centres almost as centuries-ago inhabitants might have seen them (save for electricity cables and motor cars perhaps!)

8. Share queries and information.

Estimates vary but the population of the UK is probably ten times as large now (or even more) as it was in 1700. The further back you go, the more descendants of a given ancestor there might be. Family history research now being so popular, you are probably not the only one researching many people on your tree. Modern technology is making the world smaller and you can interact with distant relatives from even far flung corners of the globe through email, online forums, family history societies and social media with comparative ease compared to a few years ago. Sharing information can provide mutual assistance and uncover new stories and family members. At over £9 per birth, marriage and death certificate, sharing information could also help you financially. Who knows, you might even discover ancestors with a wife either side of the Atlantic!

9. Be organised.

Speaking from experience, it is very easy to get carried away when researching a new line of your tree. A bundle of papers can quickly escalate into reams of sheets full of scribbles which make sense at the time but are difficult to decipher later. Try and keep your research logically and safely and record where you found each piece of information in case you need to revisit it. Also note where you’ve looked and failed to find anything so that you don’t forget and look up the same thing all over again. When visiting a record office or churchyard take a bound notepad and pencil to keep all your information together and in order – using a pencil means you can make corrections easily. Go with a game plan to make sure you don’t stray too far from what you originally intended to look for and end up confusing yourself. This is very easily done where several generations of your family are named ‘John Miller’ and born in Sprowston…

10. Never give up!

There comes a point in every person’s research where a ‘brick wall’ appears. For a while it may seem there is no way to break down this wall. However, new information is becoming available all the time, new contacts are constantly appearing on the horizon and new places to look are continually becoming accessible. It might take you years to find, but a small piece of information could suddenly click everything into place. I finally found an 8x grandfather of mine through a combination of his son’s military record (recently digitised) and marriage certificate together with a parish register transcription from a small village in Lancashire (recently made available online by volunteers). Suddenly my Norwich pub landlord was revealed as the son of a Lancastrian husbandman who travelled the world as part of the 9th Regiment of Foot before settling behind the bar at the Yarn Factory Tavern!


You may of course completely disagree with my top ten but I hope you have gained something of interest from the above - I would be interested to hear your own suggestions too!

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