Entries in My thoughts on family history (9)

Wednesday
Apr062011

Are you ever too young to be a 'genealogist'?

A few days ago I happened to tweet that someone had told me I looked “too young to be a genealogist”. It was perhaps originally a throwaway comment, but it got me thinking. 

The response I had from people out there in twitter land was quite astonishing. It seems that I am by no means the only one that has been occasionally irritated by this generalisation and certainly not the only “young” family historian out there. 

Yet, the stereotype exists. Is genealogy cool? Well, I think it could be. I think it ought to be. In these days of people moving to the other side of the world, travelling great distances just for a meeting and connecting to people across the oceans in a second on social media, I think it is perhaps more important than ever to understand where we come from and what our ancestors went through in order for us to be here at all. 

Sadly, a straw poll amongst friends suggested that most of them were also of the opinion that family history is for old people. The phrases “blue rinse” and even “slightly dusty” were associated with people interested in the past. (I must note here that I also think you are never too old to be interested in genealogy and I have never met a ‘dusty’ researcher!)  

Yet almost everybody I’ve spoken to wants to know about their heritage. 

When questioned, very few even knew their grandparents’ names, and this appears to be common with people of all ages, not just younger people. Many are not interested in researching as far back as possible at all, but rather in finding out more about people who were with us in living memory. It is all too easy to think that our grandparents and great grandparents were never young. 

Why then, if these people are so interested in finding out about their family’s past, have they not done anything about it? Because record offices are scary, researchers jealously guard their papers and because they can’t access information online? Well, while these ideas came up, it was often for more mundane reasons – not knowing where to start, thinking it would be too difficult and expensive and simply not having the time were far more common responses. 

At this point I will be open and say “My name is Elizabeth. I am 26, and I love family and local history”. I will also come out and say that I do not have a history degree. My partner does, but what he knows about genealogy would fit on a postage stamp (“I know my mother’s maiden name!”) . I am actively pursuing an MSc in Genealogy however, and I do have a BSc (hons) and existing post graduate qualifications in other disciplines, some of which overlap, mostly in my favourite subject – maps! 

Ever since I was a little girl I’ve been intrigued by family history. I have read books, joined societies, written histories, sat in record offices, contacted all sorts of people, travelled the length and breadth of my home counties (I now class both Norfolk and Suffolk as home) and further afield looking for places, people, folklore and things to photograph. I am embarking on my first book, combining my loves of photography and history and through Your Local History am aiming to inspire others to start researching themselves by giving them a helping hand with getting started and completing research locally. 

I do not pretend to be a professional researcher with decades of experience, but I do try and open records to everybody, meet requests with enthusiasm and inspire confidence in people that have never set foot in a record office before. I am quite happy to show them how. Equally, I am quite happy to show them how to research records online and how to contact distant relatives and other interested parties through websites and forums. 

What’s more, I am of course still learning every day and hope to carry on doing so for a long time to come. After all, I’d like to be an ‘old dude’ genealogist too, one day. Of course, by the time I’m 85 I’ll have been researching for 70 years and will hopefully be a ‘go to’ expert in an age where cars fly, the Vulcans have made first contact and people are looking at ‘print systems analyst’ and ‘west area travel plan officer’ on old records (probably not the census, although I hope to see myself on one eventually) and looking them up in a 3D virtual representation of library. 

I am aware that there will be those that argue that there is much more to family history. I do not disagree. I will cite sources and interpret manorial records quite happily. However, what I really want to do is help others satisfy their curiosity and ask questions of themselves, their relatives and their history – and if they can write their own book to pass down to future generations, with their own experiences in life, so much the better... 

This has been a somewhat unusual blog post for me and I am sure that it will raise some debate as to what makes a ‘genealogist’ (which I think can be quite different to a ‘family historian’) and the merits of experience vs enthusiasm and qualifications. I hope that it will go some way to eliminating the stereotypes that exist – after all, librarians up and down the country are sporting “shhhh” tattoos on their fingers and seem to have eliminated something of their old fashioned image. It’s high time genealogy did the same! 

So, as I pursue my career, I will not just be visiting archives, but geotagging photographs, embracing the ancestry iPhone app (which is a boon in graveyards) and keeping an eye out for developments in DNA research. 

What I hope to inspire in people is that anyone can be a family historian, regardless of age, occupation and circumstances.

Just start asking questions! 

Tuesday
Jan182011

The lives and loves of occupants of Rattle Row, Wymondham

A row of weavers' cottages in Wymondham was demolished in the late 1970s following a public enquiry in 1977. The cottages were replaced by retirement bungalows which remain to this day. While the street name has lingered, the houses are certainly very different to those they replaced.

The cottages made up 'Rattle Row' named after the racket of the handlooms operated by the inhabitants. 

In 1851, a household of ten lived in one of the cottages, headed by my 5xGreat Grandparents, James Gooch and Agatha Fisher. Seven of their children (Lucy (my 4x Great Grandmother), Maria, Rebecca, George, James, Mary Ann and Providence) shared their home, together with their three month old grandson, William Coman Gooch, the illegitimate son of daughter Lucy.

I have seen some weavers' cottages of Wymondham described as 'ruinous hovels'. Certainly, the family was poor - Agatha was noted as a pauper in 1851, while James, Lucy and Maria are all recorded as weavers, an industry which, by then, was in serious decline. George, at 13, was already labouring in the fields. Rebecca, otherwise old enough to work, is noted on the census as blind.

A hundred years before, according to Mr Cremer's Census of 1747, almost a quarter of families in the town were headed by a weaver - 155 of 686. By the late 1700s however, competition from the cotton producing north and loss of trade to America and France was having a negative effect on the Norfolk woolen industry.

By the time of the 1841 census the handloom industry was 'in crisis' but the industry still employed a sixth of the male population. The Wymondham Heritage Society's wonderful "Wymondham: History of a Norfolk Market Town" (2006) quotes the following from a local weaver:

"A parent tries to get his boy to anything rather than weaving. There are no boys learning to weave now, nor have been for some time past. Anything is better than weaving. Some boys have taken to agricultural employment"

This certainly fits for my own family - as we have seen, only the girls and their father were in the weaving industry in 1851, while George was employed on the land.

White's Trade Directory notes that there were less than 60 looms in Wymondham in 1845, while ten years earlier there had been 600. 

Twelve households are recorded on Rattle Row in 1851, two of whom are Coman households. The sharp-eyed among you may remember little William Coman Gooch mentioned earlier. Sure enough, William's father, also William, is living just five doors away from Lucy in 1851. William is also a weaver, this time in silk, as are all the other occupants of his home over 11 years old - just five of the 336 weavers recorded in the census that year in the town. The couple married on Boxing Day of the same year at Wymondham Abbey. 

Lucy and William had five more children, the last in 1865. Around the same time the family moved to Norwich, possibly as the weaving industry collapsed around them - 132 weavers remained in Wymondham in 1871 and just 23 in 1881.

It seems the hard life wasn't over for Lucy because by 1871 she is recorded as head of the household, scraping a living as a washer woman to support six children in the yards of Pockthorpe in North Norwich. It is not clear whether William accompanied them to Norwich or not. He disappeared between 1861 and 1871 - I hope one day to discover whether he died, emigrated or started a new life elsewhere, or whether he was imprisoned, transported....the possibilities are almost endless.

Lucy died in 1913 at the age of 82, working as a charwoman and laundress in Norwich almost up until her death. Sadly, she outlived her eldest son William, who died at Norwich Lunatic Asylum in 1905. 

My Great Great Great Grandmother Eliza's life mirrored her mother's to a certain extent. Like Lucy, she gave birth to a son before marriage, and lived next door to her son's father, who she later married, during 1881. This time, rather than Rattle Row, history played out on 'Sidney's Row' now somewhere underneath Sewell Park College's playing field.

Two years ago I moved to Wymondham -150 years after Lucy left with Eliza and her other children. No member of my direct line lived here in the intervening century and a half but in many ways I feel like I belong.

I cannot help but wonder, every time I pass Rattle Row, what life must have been like then. Were she and William happy together, or were they forced to marry? Where did he go? Did she choose to leave for the city? Although only a few miles distant, she could hardly have jumped on the number 13 bus back again if it didn't work out.

Depending on her memories of the place, perhaps most of all, I wonder whether she would have celebrated the demolition of the cottages or mourned their loss....

 

 

If you have connections to Rattle Row, or the Gooch and Coman families of Wymondham, please do get in touch.

Friday
Jan142011

“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.

“Rhoda?” 

“Here, Miss.”

Tuesday
Jan112011

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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