A Day in Birmingham

In Birmingham this weekend for Martha’s graduation – well done Martha! I decide I should be vaguely smart for the occasion. I don’t really do smart – too cold, too uncomfortable, too expensive and let’s face it, too much like hard work. I am wearing a skirt – not an issue in itself however this requires footwear people can see and I’ve opted for hand-me-up boots that are cutting off all circulation to my feet and have moderate heels that are thrusting all my weight on my toes – hey who cares – the lack of circulation means I can’t feel my toes anyway.

Problem one, we have now left the soft south and wake up to a severe frost. That’s ok my driver has plenty of de-icer, just a shame it is at home in the garage. Running the engine for about 20 minutes solves that one. Next, a phone call from Martha, Rob has forgotten his tie. This has paled into insignificance because he has also forgotten his trousers. Never fear he has his PE kit. I should explain that this is because he is a teacher and not because Martha has abducted a schoolboy as a husband. We are tasked with buying trousers on our way in to central Birmingham. Plenty of tattoo parlours and pay day loan shops but a distinct lack of trouser buying opportunities in suburban Birmingham at 8am on a Saturday. We spot an A**a and ignoring the protestations of the Sat Nav (‘turn around where possible’), park in Chris’ usual spot – as far away from the entrance as possible. I hobble round A**a looking for the clothing section. Alas this store is not large enough for an adult clothing section. So, unless Rob wants a child sized Christmas onesie it will be PE kit, dirty jeans or nothing. He opts for the middle of these three options.

23 Nov 2013 Martha and Rob 3

We were worried about finding parking in central Birmingham and have only discounted the public transport alternative on the grounds that I can’t walk more than a few steps in these boots, oh and there is no bus until Monday. Internet searches suggest it will cost us £12 to park, so we are pleased to find a £4 option, even though this now means that we are parked in a large muddy puddle. Birmingham Symphony Hall, where the graduation is taking place, is impressive, as is the surrounding area. I have been given the responsibility of bringing safety pins. As always I have forgotten to bring a handbag. I’m not sure I can even remember where any handbag I own is. I have therefore pinned various safety pins inside my coat. In the event, these are not needed but if my coat falls open it does give rather a strange impression.

23 Nov 2013 Martha 5

An enthusiastic gentleman representing the Open University Alumni offers Martha a badge and a draw ticket for a bottle of champagne. I comment that I appear to have dropped off the OU radar as they now seem to have no record of my having been either one of their students or indeed lecturers. I don’t take this personally, it is apparently something to do with a fire at HQ. I obviously look trustworthy as the man proffers a badge for me too. Wow, this makes it worth paying exorbitant sums in order to spend two hours clapping people we don’t know and 15 seconds watching Martha scuttle across a stage, trying to look unobtrusive. Not that I would have missed it because she’s done brilliantly to get the degree in the first place and then to brave her un-favourite activity, being the centre of attention.


We take our seats in the auditorium, having deposited Martha at her entrance. We are in the second row of the top balcony. This would give us a great view if the person in front wasn’t standing up. I am sandwiched between this idiot and someone in the row behind who is banging out a rhythm on the back of my seat, not quite in time with the organ recital that is the ‘warm-up’ for the ceremony. There is obviously no requirement for the nearest and dearest of OU graduates to possess anything resembling a brain.


The first group of graduates are presented by an OU big wig who is doing her very best to introduce graduate number 200 with the same enthusiasm as she did the first. This is indeed a great deal of enthusiasm – Joyce Grenfell would have been proud. Martha is near the end and the person introducing her half has obviously decided that rivalling her colleague’s level of enthusiasm is going to be a challenge, so she is altogether more low key. Graduates have been asked to provide hints if their surname is difficult to pronounce. Not thinking that Barnard is likely to present many problems, Martha has neglected to do this. This was an oversight. Martha is now related to that little known French family the Bear – naaards.

Our plan to graduate first, partake of ‘free’ refreshment second, was a good one as the queues have subsided. We avail ourselves of Danish pastries and enormous chocolate muffins. Not content with this, we adjourn to a superior burger chain for more food.


Living the Life of my Ancestors – ‘When I was Young I Didn’t Have….’

I am sitting in semi darkness reliving the lives of my ancestors and wondering how long the computer battery is going to last. 2 hours 30 minutes it says but it was 4 hours something only 20 minutes ago so who knows. We have a power cut. So much for the photo voltaic panel sales talk – ‘you won’t have a problem in a power cut’. For which read ‘you won’t have a problem in a power cut in the daytime’. How often are power cuts in the daytime? Typing this is a tad tricksy as I have to angle the lap top screen down in order to be able to see the keys. I can touch type a bit but the result is often akin to some seriously poor optical character recognition.

It was someone’s idea not to turn the Rayburn on until after it was serviced. That would have been fine if the servicing appointment (booked in September) had not been at the end of November. I have already been blacklisted by most Rayburn servicing firms in the area. They usually try once, fail miserably and say something along the lines of ‘I wouldn’t have bought that model’. Well, no dear not-actually-servicing-anything man, neither would I but it came with the house. Well anyway, what I am getting at is that, during the sub zero (well almost) temperatures of the last few days, I have been huddled in one room wearing every layer of thermal clothing I can find (I have a few, I went to Lapland remember). This means the power failure does not make a great deal of difference to the temperature. I do have the trusty woodburner but even that hasn’t been man enough for a whole house this week. However it is doing very nicely at the moment thank you and I am quite cosy.

Being a historical interpreter has its advantages. I have Victorian candlesticks and candles that I actually know where to find. I am not yet reduced to creating more light by extravagantly burning the candle at both ends but when the light from the lap top is no more I may have to, or at least light another candle or two. I do have a free with something torch. It has a handy facility – a mugger deterrent. This means it emits a high pitched whine when the switch is in a particular position. Actually it emits a high pitched whine every time I try to turn it off because I can never remember which way not to turn the switch. No idea what my neighbours are thinking is going on, at any rate they haven’t come rushing round to rescue me yet.

So I have light (sort of) and heat. Hot food may be more of a problem. In the interests of economy, I regularly boil the kettle on top of the woodburner but cooking a main meal may be more of a challenge. I knew I should have bought that cauldron. Fortunately my ability to time travel means that I can telephone a colleague who is still in the twenty first century and get him to bring out a hot food parcel in the form of chicken and chips – the diet starts, as ever, tomorrow.

The lap top and comfy settee are clearly anachronistic and it would be an open fire not a woodburner but this is closeish to the conditions that my ancestors would have endured. No wonder they all went to bed when it got dark. Without the lap top this would be seriously boring. We do take electricity and all it brings for granted. I fear we may have to go back to managing without more often than we would like in the not too distant future. Even my mother’s childhood was spent without the advantages of electricity. Of course she did have gas. Sore point this, no gas out here in this part of darkest (literally at the moment) Devon. We need to think more about what different generations did or did not have in the way of facilities and labour saving devices. Do your descendants understand what is new to their generation? Have you recorded the ‘when I was young I did not have …..’ Not just the computer and the mobile phone but depending on your generation and where you were brought up – a fridge, a car, a television, a bath every day (or a shower at all). We need younger people to understand how things have changed (I won’t say progressed). Not with the ‘you don’t know how lucky you are’ attitude – although they don’t – but in a celebrating difference sort of a way. In some ways of course we were the lucky ones – mothers who were at home to play with us, the ability to walk to school safely or play outside. You’d better hope the power comes back on soon or I shall never get off this soap box. Stop reading this drivel and go and write down 10 or 20 or 50 things about your childhood that are absent from those of today’s children – for better or worse. Your descendants will thank you for it.


The Maternal Line

Having a granddaughter, when you are a family historian, focuses the mind on motherhood and maternal ancestry. This is always more difficult to trace than the male line, because each generation introduces a new surname. Lucy Ruth is the ninth identifiable generation in the direct female line, with a possible further two generations still to be confirmed. So who were these women, where did they live, when did the marry and how old were they when they too became ‘Granny’? Many of these women lived into their late eighties or nineties – I am planning on inheriting those genes! The exception was my grandmother, who was a smoker – let that be a lesson to you. Despite this, a tendency to have children in the late twenties or thirties means that only twice has the family spanned four living generations.

Spring births were popular and many of these ladies died in  the spring too. The line starts in Essex before moving to the London suburbs, then escaping to the Isle of Wight and Cambridge. I am very fortunate that I have photographs of seven generations of women, if you include Lucy. The three most recent generations were depicted in an earlier post.
Mum c. 1947
I will start with my mum, Gwendoline Catherine ‘Gwen’ Smith born 27 February 1925 159 Albert Road (later Davidson Road), Addiscombe, Croydon, daughter of Frederick Herbert and Ivy Gertrude Smith. Married Cyril Albany Braund 27 August 1947 St. Martin’s, Croydon. Died 13 March 2011 Devon. Married at 22, One child, First child born at 31, Grandparent at 57, Died at 86.



Ivy Gertrude Woolgar 1893-1963


Ivy Gertrude Woolgar born 4 January 1893 7 Chalford Road, Dulwich, daughter of Philip James and Clara Woolgar. Married Frederick Herbert Smith 8 April 1922, St Clement Danes, London. Died 25 April 1963 28 Sundridge Road, Addiscombe, Croydon. Married at 29, One child, First child born at 32, Grandparent at 63, died at 70.


Clara Dawson 1858-1949 possibly taken 1886



Clara Dawson born 15 April 1858 Great Baddow, Essex, daughter of Thomas and Mary Archer Dawson. Married Philip James Woolgar 21 December 1886 St James’, Dulwich. Died 26 January 1949 159 Davidson Road, Addiscombe, Croydon. Married at 28, Four children, First child at 30, Grandparent at 63, died at 90.



Mary Archer Dawson née Bowyer 1830-1919


Mary Archer ‘May’ Bowyer born 1830 (probably March) Writtle, Essex, daughter of John and Ann Bowyer. Married Thomas Dawson 2 April 1855 Independent Protestant Dissenters’ Old Meeting House, Chelmsford, Essex. Died 16 April 1919 6 St John’s Cottage, Penge. Married at 25, Six children, First child at 26, Grandparent at 48, died at 89.


Ann Oliver born c 1799 (probably summer) Writtle, Essex, daughter of James and Elizabeth Oliver. Married John Bowyer 25 December 1822, All Saint’s Norton Mandeville, Essex. Died 25 February 1889 Highwood, Writtle, Essex. Married at 23, Six known children, first known child 30, Grandparent at 56, great grandparent at 78, died at 89.

Elizabeth Fitch born c 1768 (probably late summer) Writtle, Essex, probably daughter of Cornel[ius] and Ann Fitch. Married James Oliver 20 January 1794, Writtle, Essex. Died 1863, Ongar District. Married at 25, Eight children, First child at 25 (pregnant when married), Grandparent at 55 (or before), Great grandparent at 88 (or before), died at 95.

Speculatively, before this come Ann Palmer and then Ann Mason [since writing this I have established that the next two generations are indeed Ann Palmer but her mother was Sarah Cooper]. The genes that Lucy might have inherited from these Anns [now Ann and Sarah] are pretty diluted but nurture, as well as nature, plays its part. I wonder how many mannerisms and traits have travelled through these generations?

Exploring History, Writing Books and Lost Fishermen

‘Putting your Ancestors in their Place: a guide to One Place Studies’ is now with the proof readers. If all goes well it will be available in time for Who Do You Think You Are? Live in February, to go with one of my presentations there. Hurrah – now what shall I write? Actually there are plenty of ideas so please don’t suggest anymore. If you are still waiting for ‘Family Historians’ Enquire Within’, it is on its way – promise. Gave the talk of that book yesterday. The audience seemed to appreciate the A to Z suggestions but a bit of a crisis when, with only ten minutes to go, I was still only on M.

Favourite website of this week is the ‘Explore’ section of the Victoria County Histories’ website. There are articles, maps, drawings, photographs and audio files, even for counties that are poorly served by the volumes themselves.

I’ve managed to successfully identify three death certificates for the Clovelly fishermen who were lost in the 1838 storm and whose bodies were recovered. Also completed three research requests and tried to unravel another confusing American Braund line.

This coming week will see me passing on the benefits of our gravestone recording experiences, listening to the story of the research into the men on our local war memorial and a day in the seventeenth century.

Still working on Lucy’s maternal line – details to follow.

Remembering the 5th November for all the right reasons

Having been on tenterhooks (if any of your think that should be tenderhooks – no, sorry – tenterhooks were used to stretch bleaching linen out on the tenter ground) anticipating the extension of my family tree in the best possible way, I finally got a call on Monday morning – 8 days late – that things might be happening. Had no one told this child that, in its mother’s family at least, everyone one is always early for everything? This was a relief as had it been much later I was about to hit one of my four talks in ten days plus a day at work and fitting in a 600 mile round trip to see the new arrival would have been difficult. Monday dragged on and still no news, by early evening the prospective parents were at the maternity unit. Unsurprisingly I slept not at all on Monday night. Lucy Ruth finally put in an appearance by emergency C-section just before 8am on Tuesday morning.DSCF1005
I had a talk to give on Tuesday afternoon, which, despite being my being asleep and having other things on my mind, went well. Afterwards, we headed north (pretty much everywhere is north from here) in pouring rain, pleased to see how many people were setting off fireworks to celebrate Lucy’s birth.

We arrived too late for Tuesday’s visiting hours and sadly had to wait until 5.00pm on Wednesday before we could breach the security cordon. Chris passed the time strimming the ‘lawn’ for the new parents. Unfortunately this involved the outer glass of their back door being augmented with a particularly attractive crazed glass pattern.

DSCF1013 DSCF0983

Lucy is, needless to say, the most wonderful baby girl in the world. I explained to her about not wanting to believe all that nonsense about being born on Guy Fawkes Day, when in fact it should be called Robert Catesby Day. She seemed to appreciate this. I can trace Lucy’s direct maternal line back through 8 generations, with another two speculative generations after that but that is for another post.

8 Nov 2013 3 generations 2

After all too short a time we had to head back to Dorset, where I was speaking about One Place Studies. We ensconce ourselves on a caravan site. We are near to our favourite fish and chip shop and my insides were just nicely anticipating my chicken and chips when Chris returns through dark and rain to explain that we are locked in and there appears to be no way to get the car out of the site in order to reach the too far away to walk chip shop. I was disconcerted by the locked-inness, worried about what might happen in an emergency and disgruntled by the lack of chicken and chips – obviously a 5.30pm curfew on that site!

Home again and time for the Remembrance Day Service. This involves a certain amount of standing outside in the cold so I look out my Lapland thermal outfit and fleecy boots. It turns out to be the warmest November day on record and I swelter nicely, especially after the service moves in to the church.

Mistress Agnes in the News, Calibrating Cobbles and Medical Reports

It appears that Mistress Agnes, along with Master Christopher, has got herself in December’s Family Tree Magazine. I have no idea how she has achieved this as cameras were not invented in her day and even portraits were dodgy, in case your soul was stolen. I really can’t turn my back for five minutes. Rumour has it that she is off to Westward Ho! tomorrow and in Bude on Monday. People will keep asking her to tell them about her life and times and quite frankly, it just gives her big ideas. She will be insufferable.

In the process of writing my One Place Studies book I have come across this excellent website MyHomesPast. A great opportunity to upload photos of your homes past and present, as well as any pictures you might have of ancestral homes. The only drawback is that I need time to look out all those ancestral home photographs, remind me when those ten day weeks start.

I have been delving more deeply into the Clovelly fishing disaster of 1838 and have identified six possible death registrations for the victims. I’ve been restrained and only ordered three of these, now to wait and see if they are the correct ones.

Another interesting, newly discovered source are the London Medical Officer of Health Reports 1848-1972, available online from the Wellcome Institute.

I haven’t been neglecting my own One Place Studies either. Tonight I am liasing with a local theatre company in connection with a show called The Bureau of Extraordinance Survey. Apparently they ‘calibrate the cobbles, measure the mice, rotate rhubarb and weigh hey as they survey your settlement, no stone will be left unturned or leaf unlisted’ but I am none the wiser.