The (Family History) Story of Alice and May or don’t believe all you hear

This week, amidst obsessively checking for houses coming on the market and trying to stop myself mentally moving in to one I like, I have been researching the lives of Alice and May. The full story will appear on Granny’s Tales shortly. Alice and May are not newcomers to my family tree; I have known them all my life. I should qualify that, they both died before I was born but their photographs are in the treasured family album and they formed part of the lexicon of family lore that was repeated by my mother and great aunt. ‘Auntie Alice’ was one of my great grandmother’s sisters and ‘Cousin May’ was her daughter. The stories went something like this:

Alice’s first husband was a Mr Fludder, who was May’s father. Alice then married Mr Hart. May married a William Pleoney or Fleoney. Auntie Alice died in a fire when home alone in Whitstable, Kent. Normally, the family stories that were passed to me have proved to be pretty accurate when placed under the scrutiny of documentary family history research; not so these ‘facts’ about Alice and May. Decades ago, I established that almost everything I’d been told about Alice and May was wrong.

May was illegitimate. Her birth was registered as May Bula Dawson. Although there were Fludders in the area, there is no evidence that Alice was ever in a relationship with on of them and she certainly didn’t marry one. When Alice married Thomas Sanders Hart, a widower, nine years after May’s birth, May took the surname Hart and was to claim that Thomas Hart was her father when she married. Married that is to a William Dear. Goodness knows where Phleoney came from. Who was May’s father? For a long time I suspected the solitary Mr Bula who could be found in the census closest to May’s birth. Was it indeed a Mr Fludder? Was it, as May claimed, Thomas Hart? I am now, thanks to help from another researcher, pretty sure I know which is correct but I am afraid you will have to wait for the release of Alice and May’s story to find out.

Then there was the ‘burnt to death in a fire’. Well not unless she caught pneumonia as a result she wasn’t, as pneumonia, coma and thrombosis is what is on Alice’s death certificate. I looked in the newspapers, for mentions of a fire in Whitstable around the time of Alice’s death to no avail. This week I tried again. Additional newspapers have been made available. Yes, there was a fire, yes someone died whilst home alone but it wasn’t Alice. Who lost their life? Why did the family think it was Alice? Stand by for the big reveal, although diligent researchers might be able to get there first, even with just the few clues that I have given you here.

Finally, I’d welcome comments on May’s attire in this photograph. She was born in 1889, surely this is shockingly short. Could it be some kind of theatrical costume? The never-ending hunt continues.


Moving up, Moving out, Moving on

Seventeen years ago this week I fell in love with my house. After a very protracted moving process during which my chain free, mortgage free, in a hurry  buyer turned out to be none of those things, six months later, I moved in. It has been an honour to be the custodian of such a special property but for various reasons, none of which are connected to the house or the wonderful friendly village in which I live, it is time to go.

What will I miss most? The garden, the woodburner, the privilege of living in a cottage that is almost certainly four hundred years old and belonging to a community. I will miss waking up to the sound of birdsong and occasionally sheep baa-ing but it is time for the next phase of my life.

My house is on the market – if anyone wants a seventeenth century cottage in north Devon, complete with a documented house history back to 1750, now is the time to say. It is in the centre of a village, yet intriguingly hidden away, it is quirky, it is home. I’ve lavished time, effort, love and a significant amount of money on it since I have been here. It might have been my rest of my life home but I have decided otherwise. It is a weird feeling. Mentally I have had to move on but I am still here and may be here for some time, waiting for that special person who will also fall in love with this unique property. I am trying to put the whole horrendous process that is moving home in the UK to the back of my mind, whilst making sure the house is looking its best and obsessively checking Rightmove to see what is currently top of my to buy list for when that right person comes along.

As I am giving up such a lovely place I need my new home to be special too, so I need to find something I will love but not fall in love with it quite yet, in case someone else buys it before I can, or I am gazzumped. I need to think about what I might get rid of before I move but not yet, as I don’t know what I might need or have room for. So there’s an awful lot of ‘not yet’ and even more trying to convince myself that what is meant to happen will happen and everything happens, or doesn’t happen, for a reason. This is, of course, interspersed with raised stress levels and convincing myself to stop mentally redecorating the current favourite to buy property.

Much as I don’t want to wish my life away, it would be good to just jump to moving in day in a few months (please don’t let it be years) time. Oh, to save you asking, I won’t be going far.

Photo credit Harding and co

A Few Welsh Days

Having left Sheffield we headed for Tredegar House caravan site, where we have stayed before. Turns out it isn’t in Tredegar, who knew? In my defence I wish to put it on record that it wasn’t me who left the book with the directions in at home. To add to the problem, we had accidentally pressed mute on the new satnav without realising it (this probably was me), so lacked verbal instructions. The Welsh detour was to see the Strictly Professionals Show (this time I was delivering a birthday present), so more angst about finding the venue. I was a little less concerned about accessing tickets via my phone this time, having cracked it in Sheffield. Instead, the major stress factor was, will there be a parking place? This was exacerbated when we learned that Beyonce was playing to a 74,000 strong crowd in Cardiff on the same evening. We did have to wind our way up to the sixth floor of the multi-story car park but we did find a space. The main drawback of the evening was the people sitting next to me who chatted in very loud voices the whole way through. Perhaps they thought they were auditioning for Gogglebox. Hard stares from all around made no impact. They also decided they couldn’t wait until the interval to get drinks – cue squeezing past from the middle of the row along the very narrow gap between seats. This was followed by the slopping of cider over a few hapless audience members on their return journey and yes, the inevitable results of copious amounts of cider consumption, which couldn’t wait until the interval either. Maybe people should have to sit an etiquette entrance test before being allowed in to theatres, sporting or concert venues.

Concert over, we went to play find the car. The lift queues in the multi-story car park were impressive, so we opted for the stairs. By the fourth floor this seemed like a less good idea and I debated whether it was time to remember that I allegedly have a heart condition. Fortunately we weren’t amongst those who didn’t realise that you had to pay on the ground floor before finding your car.

Time in Wales allowed us to pay some return visits, first to Tredegar House, which was on our doorstep and was home to the Morgan family before more recent generations squandered the assets on partying and the house became home to a convent school. Not sure how well the ‘classical’ wall paintings would have gone down but apparently they remained on view.

We also went back to St Fagans. You really do need more stamina than we have to see all it has to offer in one day, so it was a good opportunity to see bits we missed last time. There was an excellent exhibition about Welsh life, with artefacts representing several thousand years of history. Next we went to the weaving shed, where today’s activity was spinning on a loom that spun and wound eighty bobbins at once. We walked round the lovely gardens and looked at several of the reconstructed buildings that have been brought on site from all over Wales. My favourites were the row of miners’ cottages that were each furnished to represent a different era. Now home and with a busy time ahead.

Visiting Homes of Status and Power

Are you still there? I hear you cry. Well, actually I don’t but yes, I am still here. There’s been a lot going on lately, of which more another time but for now, I thought I’d share some details of a few days we recently spent on the Yorkshire/Derbyshire borders.

We travelled via grandchild sitting to a quiet caravan site just outside Sheffield. This was in part to deliver a Christmas present in the shape of attendance at an André Rieu concert. Inevitably, this was accompanied by the usual angst – will we find the venue? Will we find the car park? Can I make the app work to display our tickets? Come back actual printed tickets, all is forgiven. It turns out that all the fears were unfounded and the concert was safely attended.

We also took the opportunity to meet up with family, which was lovely and do some touristy things. First stop Hardwick Hall, home of formidable Tudor woman Bess of Hardwick, familiar to me from the exam syllabus. Hardwick Hall was built in the sixteenth century to showcase the power and status that Bess accrued, largely due to four advantageous marriages. Our visit coincided with a parade by the parachute regiment, who were stationed at Hardwick during World War 2.

The Earl of Shrewsbury, one of Bess’ husbands, was responsible for Mary Queen of Scots during her house arrest and although Mary was never in residence at Hardwick there are artifacts that are believed to have belonged to her. The many tapestries are a feature of the house and adorn almost every wall. The gardens were lovely too.

Next stop Bolsover Castle, where I fell out with the audio guide, which kept defaulting to the introduction rather than the area we were in. Bolsover was the home of the Cavendish family and another symbol of wealth and power, this time of William Cavendish, Marquis of Newcastle, grandson of Bess of Hardwick. The seventeenth century castle was built on the site of a Medieval fortress and has some impressive views.  The late C11th castle was owned by William Peveril and its ruins were the inspiration for Cavendish’s ‘Little Castle’, built in the early 1600s. Charles I and Henrietta Maria were entertained at the castle. The Cavendishs suffered for supporting the king during the Civil War but returned to the castle after the Restoration and commenced a programme of building and rebuilding. The riding house and stables are a reminder of Cavendish’s passion for equestrianism. There are some unusual wall and ceiling paintings that have been preserved. William met his wife Margaret whilst taking refuge in Europe; she was maid of honour to the exiled queen Henrietta Maria. Margaret was a prolific writer and philosopher who challenged the female stereotypes of her time. Her eccentricities meant that she was later known as ‘Mad Madge’ and described by Pepys as ‘mad, conceited and ridiculous’.

When the male line died out the castle became little more than a holiday home and gradually fell into disrepair. The opening of the nearby mines in 1889 were the death knell of the castle as it suffered from subsidence and the associated pollution. It was given to the nation in the mid-twentieth century and further decay has been prevented.

Family Stories, Family Treasures and some Memories: a task for the family archivist

For the past few months, I have been trying to discover that useful commodity ‘spare time’ and use it to create a small website to be the repository of all the family stories that run round my head. This is rather different from the family history accounts that appear on this website. These are mostly uninspiring narratives, designed to record all the facts that I have found for that branch of the family. The new website is for stories rather than accounts and in future, these will vary from long biographies to short paragraphs about particular anecdotes from the past. There is also a section for my own memories, taken from my auto-biography. In particular, I wanted a vehicle for the stories of the family treasures that I am privileged to have in my temporary care. Without the associated narratives, these heirlooms become mere ‘things’; I feel the need to explain their significance and let others know why they are precious. Artefacts also provoke memories; memories of their owners, memories of occasions when they were in use and associated narratives.

All this may this seem self-indulgent and perhaps it is but I am the only person with most of this knowledge; it is my responsibility not to let it be lost. If I were able to see my descendants more often these would be the accounts that they would hear verbally from me but there may be more stories than there is time, so I decided that I would make a start. The website is tiny at the moment. I plan to add more stories on a regular basis but I didn’t want to begin with an overwhelming number. The intention is that my descendants will actually read this and I thought that they might be put off if I inflicted too much on them at once.

I am not expecting hundreds of hits on the site, or anyone outside the immediate family to read it much, although you’d be very welcome to do so. In fact, I may be optimistic thinking that my descendants will read it but at least now they have the option. What I hope may happen, is that others will take a quick look and be inspired to tell their own family stories. So, if you have five minutes, pop across for a brief glance at Granny’s Tales and then go out and do likewise.

A Genealogist’s Nightmare: tracing the Smith Family in London

A few months ago, I was invited to give a talk to  London, Westminster and Middlesex Family History Society. They particularly wanted something with a London flavour. Nothing in my repertoire quite fitted the bill so I suggested, rashly, that I could put together something based on my Smith ancestors of London. These things always seem like a good idea from the safety of several months away. It should be easy. I’d already written the Smith family story. I even had a short power-point about them. I ‘just’ needed to pull together all the detail about the sources I’d used for the genealogy and the context and I’d be away. I set out to do ‘just’ that very thing. Perhaps, thought I, this would be a good opportunity to revisit that branch of my family, as I do periodically, in case anything new could be found. Forget rabbit holes. I descended into a pit roomy enough for a decent-sized elephant. It is one of those scenarios where the brick wall seems paper thin but is nonetheless impenetrable. Surely x must be the father of y but how do I confirm that, especially with a name like Smith in a highly populated area?

A saving grace for my Smith family is that they like marrying ladies from the Seear family. My three times great grandfather John Jeremiah Smith married Charlotte Seear, his son, my great great grandfather William Joseph Smith married his first cousin, Charlotte’s niece, Eliza Seear. Their son, Herbert Havet Smith, my great grandfather, married Eliza’s niece, Catherine Seear, who was simultaneously Herbert’s wife, his first cousin and his second cousin. I do hope that you are following this. You are probably thinking that it accounts for a great deal. It certainly makes DNA research on this branch ‘interesting’. You’d think Seear would be easy to research. I’ll own that it is an improvement on Smith but there a list of variants longer than several arms and once you stray into Hertfordshire/Buckinghamshire/Bedfordshire there are probably more of them than there are Smiths.

You are probably waiting for me to tell you that, as a result of taking another look at the family, there was a eureka moment and I added several generations to my family tree. Sadly, no but there are fewer bricks in the wall. I was looking for an example to use for the talk and decided to input Seear rather than Smith. This led me to a will that I hadn’t looked at before. A will that should crack my Seear brick wall but doesn’t, still, I now have the names of the siblings of my Seear brick wall ancestor and John Jeremiah Smith featured as a beneficiary. I also reread a will for a John Smith, someone I felt should be John Jeremiah’s father (I knew his father was John). I had previously dismissed it as there is no mention of John Jeremiah, or those I had identified as his likely siblings. Paring this will with marriage witnesses in the family, it now looks as if it is indeed the will of my 4x great grandfather and that the children he does mention are his oldest children, who I had not previously noted as potential siblings for John Jeremiah. I even have three teeny tiny DNA matches to descendants of one of these older children. Is this proof? Of course not but this John Smith of the will has moved from ‘probably not my ancestor’ to ‘almost certainly my ancestor.’ Will he ever be inked in as my 4x great grandfather, probably not but I can hope.

Oh and if anyone is reading this who is expecting me to give a talk on the Smiths in a few days’ time, never fear, I climbed out of the elephant pit eventually and there is a talk prepared.

My Smith Ancestors

Drunken Women, Large (Family) Trees and other excitements

‘What have you been up to lately?’, I hear you cry. Well, actually, I don’t but I’m going to tell you anyway.

I have been spending time with some drunken women, I should hasten to explain that this is in the historical, not actual, sense. Our Few Forgotten Women Team, aided by more than fifty helpers from all parts of the English-speaking world, have been tracing the stories of women found in two inebriate homes in the 1901 census. Their stories are mostly pretty tragic cycles of despair and degeneration but it is important that they are told. Photographs of many of the women survive in the online Habitual Criminals’ registers and they tell their own story. The stories of eighty six women are beginning to appear here.

There’s been a bit of a social media discussion lately about large online trees. Do people take large trees seriously? How large is too large? Here is my take on the issue. I was 100% against EVER putting my family tree online until I took an Ancestry DNA test about five years ago. I didn’t even have an Ancestry account at this point, being an inveterate FindmyPast fan (and I still am, finding their searching infinitely easier. Horses for course and familiarity is a great  thing, others will feel differently). Anyway, I took the test, the results came, I started looking for matches. Which were the matches I was prioritising? Those with online trees. Well, I thought, maybe I’d just add a very basic, private tree of my direct line. So I did. With all those thousands of DNA matches, in my case mostly very tiny, I found myself concentrating on those with public trees; so I went public. Of course, to link with DNA matches you need to be wide and deep, so I began, slowly to add all those individuals that lurk on my family tree, garnered over nearly fifty years of research. This I did cautiously and meticulously, one person at a time. One reason for not importing a tree wholesale was because I don’t have one single tree but about twenty different trees for different branches, as I prefer to work that way. Yes, I could have merged them and then uploaded in one go but I deliberately chose not to, using it as an opportunity to check what I’d done. Only one 9x great grandmother was felled from the tree as a result.

I wasn’t going to add sources because why would I? This was not my primary way of recording my tree, this was just for DNA. Then of course I realised that I was only taking online trees seriously if they were sourced, so sources were added. I included my children’s ancestors as well as my own and then, later, some of my grandchildren’s. I began by only adding individuals that I considered to be verified. Then, hesitantly, I have added a few individuals, clearly labelled ‘hypothesis’, in case the hypothesis is right and a DNA match could help to support it. Even with all this, as of today, my tree contains 3161 people. Maybe it isn’t larger because I never add information from other trees, although I do use them as clues to further research.

So what is wrong with larger trees? Do I dismiss them out of hand? Well no, that would be short-sighted but I must admit to a certain amount of scepticism as the numbers stretch beyond 5000. I find myself wondering if each one of those individuals really is carefully researched and verified using original sources. I’ve been at this for since 1977 and spend more time than I am going to admit on it. No way could I add upwards of 5000 people with any confidence. Of course, in some cases, these ultra large trees are well researched. Some are large because they are the result of one-name or one-place studies. It doesn’t take a great deal to gain an impression of the quality of the research on these mega trees and sort the good from the downright ridiculous. Is there a danger though that a large tree might give an impression of careless research? The jury is still out on that one but it is an interesting debate.

There’s been a lot more going on but this post is already too long so I’ll leave you with the tale of my mother’s day gifts. One daughter sent a package that included a mystery book (she chose the genre not the title) the title is ‘Family might be the death of you’, possibly not the most appropriate! A planted (I use the word advisedly) floral arrangement from other daughter was delivered to the neighbouring chapel porch, which shares my postcode. Fortunately, someone spotted it, retrieved it and handed it to me. It was also delivered by someone who had clearly ignored the ‘this way up’ notice and arrows. I seem to have successfully salvaged/replanted it and it is now flourishing but there was quite a bit of earth everywhere.

Cornish Adventure Aventur Kernewek (possibly) part 5 (nothing to do with travel but partly to do with family history)

It has been a while since I regaled you with news of my attempts to learn Cornish, mainly because ‘I’ve mastered a few more words’ isn’t exactly newsworthy. Questions are being asked, so here is an update. My second term of lessons has now drawn to a close, so I thought I should just put it out there that I am still on this adventure. I certainly would never have believed at the outset that I could amass a vocabulary of about 1000 words in twenty hours worth of lessons, especially as it took me about a month to get beyond the first couple of dozen. I’ll admit I am sometimes a bit hazy about plurals and whether things are male or female but I am getting there. I should elaborate, I am pretty clear about what makes actual things male or female, it is the gender of inanimate objects that is trickier.

The real struggle is stringing these words together into anything approaching a grammatical sentence. Then there are the mutations. If something begins with a g, why the need to suddenly make it begin with a k – or should that be the other way round? I have purchased an as yet unopened daunting book of verb tables but I’m not sure that that marks progress.

Why am I doing this? Well it is a bucket list kind of a thing, a later life crisis – I’d love to say mid-life crisis but who am I kidding? It is also a mental challenge. Some people climb mountains because they are there, I guess I do this to prove I can, despite my total ineptitude for languages other than my own. Mainly I am attracted to the idea of connecting with my Cornish roots. Cornwall features in my ancestry more than any other county. Admittedly this is eastern Cornwall, not the mystical far south-west but definitely Cornwall. Some of these lines can be traced back to the seventeenth century. I am looking at you Sambells, Rooses, Spears, Oughs and many more. Did you speak Cornish? Dydh Da dhywgh hwi.

Great encouragement, next term’s course is for ‘post beginners’, so I’m officially no longer a beginner. I am going to have to do a awful lot of consolidating over the Easter break to live up to this status.

New Book, New Ventures and a Random Shopping Order

Firstly, I am now allowed to tell the world the exciting news that my next book is at the publishers. This is a non-fiction volume, commissioned by Pen and Sword, about tracing Marginalised Ancestors. So, my usual fare of tragedy and trauma, with chapters on Poverty, Criminality, Illegitimacy, Mental Health, Sickness, Prostitution, Witchcraft and more. Each chapter includes a case study and they were such fun to research. I can’t wait to introduce you to Sarah and Joseph and Charity and Harriet and Frederick and co.. Don’t hold your breath though. I am hoping that this may be out by the end of the year, so in your Christmas stockings but it could be 2024. This isn’t exactly a cover reveal as it is still provisional but I have been given the green light to share.

Then two new ventures that will also involve writing. I am to join The History Girls as a reserve blogger. This blog contains a fascinating range of posts on all things historical and is billed as ‘A blog from great writers of historical fiction’. I am having a serious bout of imposter syndrome but it should be fun. As I clearly don’t have enough to do, I applied for and have been accepted as a contributor to the Mass Observation Project. This is particularly exciting as my mother was a contributor in the early 1960s. The website does say that the original project ran from 1937 to the early 1950s but does also mention some material from the 1960s and I distinctly remember my mother having to write down what was on her shopping list. They have asked for a biography ‘it can be as long or as short as you like’. Do they realise that I have an 80,000 word, as yet unfinished, auto-biography stashed away? I am assuming they don’t want all of that. On the other hand ……….

Last week, I encountered that thing when you accidentally click on the wrong day for your T****s order without realising (meant to be next week) and just bung all the favourites in the basket regardless to hold the order, thinking you’ll sort it out and delete stuff a couple of days before. Then you get an email confirming that goods to the value of twice your normal shop are on their way and you have no space in the freezer, because obviously the order is the following week and you daren’t even look at what you’ve ordered, as probably it includes stuff that your daughter, who eats funny modern stuff, ordered when she was here and a load of random things you don’t want. I never did look at the order, so Mr T****’s delivery man turned up with quite a lot of trays of stuff. Well, it could have been worse. Not too much frozen stuff, no weird modern stuff but I have all the ingredients ready for next year’s Christmas cake and puddings!

RootsTech Roundup Day 3 #NotAtRootsTech

On the third day of  RootsTech I had been really looking forward to Wanda Wyporska’s session (from late UK time on day 2) about researching women and was sad to see that it was not able to be recorded. As the custodian of ancestral christening gowns, wedding dresses and quilts Preserving your Ancestors’ Textiles and Handmade Treasures by Melissa Barker was another that was high on my ‘must watch’ list. Again, if you watch, you can skip the first 3 minutes 19 seconds of setting up chat. Sadly my house is too small to follow all of her advice. Interesting to learn that folded textiles should be refolded in a different way every few months to avoid deterioration along the creases.

Next, another talk from Diahan Southard, My Messy, Complicated Birth Roots Story. This was a fascinating and well-presented session, highlighting the problems of trying to identify DNA matches, particularly if you are related to someone through two different family lines. Highly recommended.

30 Fun and Meaningful Activities for Kids and Grandkids to Celebrate their Ancestors Sharlene Habermeyer was also on my watch list. Two minutes in before this one starts. I do appreciate and welcome the fact that these videos have been made available so quickly but wonder if a little editing out of the set up might have been useful. The presentation does what it says in the tin and Sharlene’s website has free downloadable resources A few are US orientated but there are others that are applicable to all. I did cringe however at her suggestion of cleaning graves and making rubbings of them. This is common practice elsewhere but is definitely not advised, or indeed legal, in Britain, where the lichens that grow on gravestones are protected. I did love the idea of sharing memorabilia; I just wish my grandchildren visited often enough to do this. Trying on ancestral wedding dresses or uniforms was another great idea, although I don’t see why this should be a gendered activity. Plenty of really good suggestions for using ancestral photos. I shall be reading the full details of the activities mentioned by Sharlene on her website and trying some of the ideas; first I think will be the talents and hobbies activity and the timeline. On a similar topic, I listed to Sarah Day’s short GenZ Genealogy presentation from 2022, outlining how we can support 10-24 year olds on the genealogical journeys. She also suggests what GenZ themselves can do. Pleased to hear that this included joining societies. Another catch up from last year was Write your Family Stories (in 30 minutes or less) by Brenda Hudson. Useful suggestions here for those who struggle with starting to write stories.

So that’s a wrap. I do still have a couple left on this year’s play list and few few lingering from previous years. I will no doubt add more when others share their recommendations. I will try not to leave it until next year to watch these. The dates for next year are announced – so make a note in your diaries.