Books, Talks and Lunatics – Family History Mayhem

It is Monday. I am dressed in my thermals with more layers on than I care to remember. The last time I’ve worn this many clothes it was minus 25 degrees and I was in Lapland. It can only be a Bank Holiday in England. It was my turn to be a ‘writer in residence’ at Bucks Mills. It was a truly lovely setting. I only knew that because I’d been numerous times before. On arrival it was difficult to see the sea through the mist (ok, let’s be accurate here – impenetrable fog). It was also bracingly cold. The day did brighten and there was a steady stream of visitors. To be fair, more were interested in the Cabin we were huddled in than our literary efforts but it was an experience.

DSCF3708The family were visiting so on the one day that constituted summer (Tuesday) we frolicked in gnome hats at one of my favourite local tourist destinations (really is best not to ask). Then it was time to practice what I preach and encourage my descendants to take in interest in their past. Lucy learned to arrange her first family tree. More inhabitants of its branches to add on her next visit.

Next, some time in the seventeenth century, shooting school children and the like. I was not originally supposed to be on the team for this particular school but one of my colleagues wasn’t well enough to attend so it was across the border to Cornwall for two days. A couple of gems from these sessions: Me to a group of 12-13 year olds: ‘Why do you think people had so many children in the seventeenth century?’. (I know, you’d think this would be asking for trouble but it is very rare that anyone mentions lack of contraception in graphic detail – though one girl did say ‘pleasure’ this time). Response: ‘If one child needs a kidney transplant then there are more who might be compatible.’ Oh to be inside the head of a thirteen year old. Or actually, maybe not. To make matters worse, this child had just sat through an hour on the medicine of our time! If he came away with the impression that Master Christopher is a dab hand at kidney transplants we are doing something wrong.

Part of my session involves ‘make-overs’ – giving the little darlings seventeenth century clothing to don on top of their uniforms. I hand a young lad a pair of breeches – with the usual dire warnings about fastening the waist tie with a bow so he doesn’t get irretrievably knotted in (the consequence of which is that I make him go in to lunch wearing the breeches). Helpfully, as usual, I inform him that there’s no need to remove his shoes (never a good idea to encourage thirteen year old boys to remove their shoes in public). I fail to add that bit about not needing to remove his school trousers ……….

Somewhat rashly I had also agreed to revisit the wonderful venue that is Devon Rural Archive (again to fill in for someone who was sick) on the evening of the first day in Cornwall. The journey was considerably shorter if we went straight from Cornwall to the southern edge of Dartmoor, rather than returning home first so, sat-nav at the ready, off we set. We knew from experience that we needed to consciously avoid the Tamar toll bridge so when asked by Sally sat-nav ‘Do you wish to avoid tolls?’ we naturally pressed Yes, expecting to be directed across the Tamar somewhere in its northern reaches. Not so. We had neglected to instruct the sat-nav (and indeed she had neglected to enquire) not to take us on any vessels. One crossing of the Torpoint ferry later and we were heading back in to Devon.

My talk, which was on the Civil War in the South-west, is never quite what the audience expect. They come to hear long lists of battles, the victors and the vanquished, which, quite frankly, bores even me. What they get is something very different. No spoliers, book me and find out!

Someone, who shall remain nameless but it wasn’t me, decided we’d go home via the shortest, rather than the quickest, route. Won’t be trying that again. Unfortunately the vehicle that is large enough to transport the pikes and armour that we required for the school does not have a means of charging a sat-nav. Somewhere truly in the middle of nowhere it whimpered and died. Ever the Girl Guide, I was prepared for this and we resorted to that wonderful invention, a map. We didn’t get lost but it did take an inordinately long time. We finally got home about sixteen hours (and five hours of presentations) after we left it.

Books. I promised you books. The Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies have made Coffers, Clysters, Comfrey and Coifs: the lives of our seventeenth century ancestors book of the month (this means it is 15% off). I always worry that this is because they’ve landed themselves with loads of copies they can’t shift but they assure me it isn’t so. Daisy is actually making progress; bet you thought I’d abandoned it. A chapter finished today. Bit of a gruelling account of an instance of diphtheria in 1914 but I don’t want to give too much away.

This week also brought the not unexpected news that Who Do You Think You Are? Live will be no more. So the last chance for me to say that you can now download the handouts from my WDYTYA?L talks. Actually you can get them on my own website but should you want those from others you will need the Society of Genealogists’ link. And lunatics? Well the above is probably enough lunacy but I have spent a fascinating time looking at the patient case books for Bethlem Hospital (from whose name we get the word Bedlam). These are available on FindmyPast. Genuki have also made a list of Exminster Asylum patients available, which includes one of my very minor Daisy characters. There are several there I need to investigate in more detail. It may even turn the minor character in to a more major one. I am fascinated by the history of mental illness and indeed illness in general. If you feel the same you might like to sign up for my online course on the history of medicine, In Sickness and in Death: researching the ill health and death of your ancestors. This starts in August.

Lots going on over the next couple of months. I will try to keep you up to date.


One comment on “Books, Talks and Lunatics – Family History Mayhem

  1. Una Atkins says:

    Another great article – thank you so much Janet.

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