What every History Interpreter would Like for their Birthday

My birthday list this year contained a random selection of items of an historical nature. It isn’t actually my birthday quite yet but I was instructed to order things on my behalf and they have been dropping on my door mat. Not for me jewels, perfume or even chocolate. What lady of mature (maturish) years would not want lanthorns (not something the spell checker missed – a lantern is literally a lant-horn, as it used horn to shield the flame from the wind), nefs (cutlery sets) and canvas buckets? Well I was very impressed by them anyway. Equally impressed that the vendor sent complimentary sweets with the package! Well done for customer service BA Blades.

It is it surprising how the acquisition of shiny new advertising car magnets can concentrate the mind. I was keen to try out said magnets but this required a clean car, or at least a sufficiently large portion of the car upon which to affix a magnet. Breaking the habit of a lifetime, I hurled a bucket of water in the vague direction of the car. Most of the contents ended up over me but hey – I am all for multi-tasking and showering whilst car cleaning could catch on. Actually I am a little doubtful about the wisdom of cleaning the car – I am convinced that the dirt is holding it together. One of the magnets did get an outing though.

This week saw Mistress Agnes’ final appearance for her former employer. Exciting times ahead as she is now firmly ensconced in the world of Swords and Spindles. If you know anyone who wants to be entertained by a slightly eccentric group of historical interpreters, just let her know – available for family and local history societies, heritage sites and events, schools, weddings and bar mitzvahs – well, most of the foregoing. If you want to spend a day in the seventeenth century, learning about researching in that century and about life at that time, I still have some spaces on my day course in Poundstock, near Bude on 25 April.

Also this week, the arrival of the book about members of the Braund family who have lost their lives in conflict. I can take no credit for this one. In addition a meeting of Buckland Brewer History Group when an enthusiastic audience embraced our plans to conduct a mapping project for the parish. – warm fuzzy feelings abounded as I watched my friends and neighbours exclaiming over LIDAR images of their homes and gardens.

Now I shall be heading north (I know, everywhere is north) to meet old friends and make new at the Guild of One-Name Studies’ conference, where I am leading an interactive session on publishing – happy days.


The Postman Calls – and brings History to my Door Mat

DSCF2366It has been a very exciting week on the Swords and Spindles front, with the postman delivering not just shiny advertising signs to affix to the car but also various ebay acquired artefacts. Our initial approaches to schools (hampered by the steam driven internet) have been very positively received, so these are exciting times. We are now on Facebook and looking for ‘likes’ so, in the interests of shameless self-promotion, I am mentioning it – no obligation, just saying!

Then there was a really bumper day post-wise when I found on the door mat not only the proof of a 1930s local history book that Buckland Brewer History Group are reprinting but even better, images of the whole 1941 National Farm survey for the parish. These were acquired on our behalf by a selfless volunteer (or maybe they just didn’t know how to say no to my tentative request!). This just goes to reinforce what I have always known, that family and local history fans are generous in the extreme.

Whisper it very quietly but it does seem that my communications are restored to their former glory. After wasting another hour of my life listening to how important my call was, I manage to organise a repair to my telephone line. It was with great excitement that I saw the engineers’ van parked outside the following day. Shades of Marie Celeste, there were no repair persons in said van but a van nonetheless. Although this did restore my phone temporarily, it was merely destined to lull me into a false sense of security. It seems that they were actually repairing someone else’s phone. It was a further two days before the telephone engineer called to say my line was restored. Great, I thought, now my internet speed will return to normal, instead of being intermittent and so excruciatingly slow that pictures would not appear on many websites. Not so. A slight sense of panic at this point. Apart from the general frustration, one of my jobs is wholly dependant on vaguely decent (by rural standards) internet speed. To say nothing of wondering how I would deliver my remote presentations to Canada in my seriously pixilated state. Well, as I type (and I hardly dare say this) things do seem to have returned to that happy state we call normal. Now to catch up with all the tasks that have taken twice as long as they should over the last couple of weeks.

Swords, Spindles and technological troubles #livinghistory

Well, after a short period of ‘Shall we?, Shan’t we?’ Mistress Agnes is moving home. The pending closure of her previous location in Torrington meant that a decision had to be made. Should she continue appearing at history groups and social clubs, as she has done for several years, or should she and her friends be more proactive and expand their work to provide sessions for schools? Should we offer to fill the gap that would be left by the demise of our former employer? Knowing that this would mean a great deal of work and knowing too that if I do something I do it properly, there was a certain amount of thinking through whether I wanted to take this on in my ‘semi-retirement’. Thanks to continual changing of the retirement age, real retirement is still an increasingly long time ahead. This all also had to be done quickly so that we could strike whilst the iron was still warm, if not exactly hot.

Full logoIn the end it was a no-brainer so let me introduce you to the world of Swords and Spindles. We are so grateful to many people who have already supported us. My school friend, Jeanne Perrett, a talented artist, designed our logo in no time at all. Some of her beautiful and exciting art work can be seen here. We have already had booking enquires and our Twitter following @swordspindles is building up. So thank you to all who have helped to spread the word.

So what happens just when one is trying to set up a new business and one needs ones internet and telephone most? The telephone line dies completely. I cannot explain how I do still have an, intermittent and excruciatingly slow, internet connection but I do. After half an hour of ‘your call is important to us’ (but clearly not important enough for you to answer), I got through to a person to whom I could report the non-existence of my telephone. No fewer than seven times I told the same gentleman that there was no sound whatsoever when I lifted my receiver. Finally, after about twenty minutes, he has a light bulb moment and suggests sending an engineer. Unfortunately, at that point I lose the mobile signal. To be honest that was three days ago and I have lost the will to waste another hour of my life starting all over again. It is a bullet that will nevertheless have to be bitten.

Working with young people in the seventeenth century is always entertaining and make you realise that, as L P Hartley said, ‘the past is (truly) another country’ and they do indeed ‘do things differently there.’ Mistress Agnes was explaining, to a group of eleven year olds, how clothes were made when one of her audience asked, ‘What is spinning?’ Another term to add to the list of ‘obvious’ words that need explaining. Spinning is I understand some new form of keep fit torture, not exactly Mistress Agnes’ forte.

My time as a presenter on Unlock the Past’s Baltic Cruise is getting closer – the cruise even got a mention in The New York Times!


The show must go on – or not in some cases

Have you ever had one of those weeks? I recently arrived in a town not especially near me to deliver a talk and discovered that my notes were fifty miles away. Those of you who have heard me present will know that I don’t very often use notes but for this particular talk they were pretty necessary for the first twenty minutes. What to do? Could I wing it? Ah, then I realised that the text of the talk was on my computer, which I have with me for power point purposes. Fortunately I was early enough to copy up the basics on to a purloined piece of paper. This was more difficult than it sounds because I can’t read my handwriting at the best of times and this was not the best of times, as I was wearing contact lenses and had not brought my reading glasses. By extending my arms and squinting a bit, I managed with a combination of speed line-learning and scribbled headers in large letters. Hopefully my audience did not notice the join.

Then I was due to present a Hangout-on-air. By its nature, this requires an internet connection. I returned from a few lovely days in granny mode to find that I had no electricity. An adjustment of the trip switch and it was restored – so far so good, hurrah. It turned out however that my router was deceased. I sneaked to the village shop, laptop in hand, to gain sufficient internet access to find the required telephone number. A quick call to an offshore call centre. ‘How old is your router?’ I am asked. Well I don’t celebrate its birthday but probably pretty old. Is this relevant? It is dead, whether it died of old age or not seems immaterial. ‘We will send a replacement in three working days.’ Unlikely, as this would be a Sunday but I am at their mercy. ‘Helpfully’ they tell me that I can track the progress of the delivery online. This does of course require me to be able to get on line. The good news was that it arrived within 48 hours. The bad news was that this 48 hour internet black hole coincided with my need to present the Hangout-on-air. I couldn’t even prevail on a neighbour, as it turned out that a severe local storm had knocked out numerous local routers. I did my best but sometimes technology (or lack of) gets the better of us.

I have now had confirmation that I will be giving two presentations at the British Isles Family History Society of Greater Ottawa conference in September. These will be in person this time, so not dependant on the health of my router.

For those who are waiting for the electronic version of my ’Til Death us do Part booklet on historic causes of death it is now available.

How historians celebrate Valentine’s Day and other historical goings-on

How does one spend Valentine’s Day? Sharing a romantic meal with one’s beloved? Staring at the sunset? Even a trip to Paris? No, I spend it dressed in seventeenth century costume, drumming my way through the streets, in the company of a regimental rabble, commemorating the Battle of Torrington, which effectively ended the first English Civil War in 1646. I don’t get to drum very often and my previous performances have been of the English March (affectionately known as ‘going to the shop’). This year there were only three drummers and the one of us who actually had half an idea of what was going on (that would not be me) decided that we would go for the Scottish March, on the grounds that it was slower and might be easier on the hangovers of members of our accompanying pike block. In fact the Scottish March is easier but it was of course different and when our leader put in twiddly bits, I was reduced to drumming randomly, smiling and hoping for the best. By the time we reached the town square though we were actually managing to pretty much keep together.

Drumming, even for less than a mile, makes you heartily sick of marching beats, be they English, Scottish or whatever. Goodness knows how troops coping with twenty miles a day put up with repetitive beats – they were probably all deaf from the constant noise anyway. Even with a small troop and three drummers it is pretty noisy, what with the drums and the soldiers hurling abuse at the enemy, especially when walking through the streets adds an impressive echo. Imagine how the inhabitants of small village would have felt when armies of up to ten thousand men marched through. This battle commemoration always gets the hairs standing up on the back of ones neck. Great to celebrate local heritage in this way.

2590261’Til Death us do Part is now on sale and will soon be an ebook. I have also been writing for the Worldwide Genealogy Blog and of course I am working my way through the chapters of my (still to be titled) book, based on the memories of some lovely ladies who are recalling the years from 1946-1969.

Mistress Agnes has been round and about a bit lately – apart from her drumming episode. She has being describing the duties of the seventeenth century housewife, accompanying Master Christopher, when he talks about the weaponry of the time and tomorrow her topic is ‘The Civil War in the South West’. There may be exciting times on the horizon for Mistress Agnes; I hope to be able to reveal more soon. This week is very much one of those, ‘It is Wednesday, I must be talking about writing up your family history’ weeks, with a day course and a half day course to deliver, as well as the individual sessions – heigh ho – at least I don’t get bored.

A Surfeit of YouTube

The last week or so seems to have been a mad round of presentations and with seven more in the next fortnight, it isn’t getting any less hectic. Those I have just done have been of the digital variety, those to come are in person and many of them are for Mistress Agnes, rather than myself. First, I helped The Society for One-Place Studies to launch their migration project for 2015 via a Google+ Hangout on Air. Next, our own local history group held a workshop day, in freezing temperatures, researching the men on our first world war roll of honour. In connection with this, we put my introductory chat on YouTube, for the benefit of far flung members. A new venture that we hope will continue. It was very odd sitting talking to myself in order to create the video and yes, I forgot to turn the telephone off but at the second attempt, it wasn’t too bad.

On the subject of First World War research, I have come across a couple of useful websites recently. Firstly, the National Archives have made records of appeals tribunals, where individuals applied for exemption from military service, available. The bad news is that these only cover London and Middlesex but interesting nonetheless. Then there is this website and blog, Walter Carter WW1 Soldier’s Tale, which recreates the story of a fictional soldier on a day by day basis, using social media. It deserves much wider publicity.

Still more YouTube, as I was interviewed in order to create a trailer for the Ontario Genealogical Society conference, at which I am speaking remotely in May. This finished project makes me sound weirdly jerky, as indeed I do on some of the other videos but I assure any potential audience members that I don’t really sound like that – I am blaming bandwidth. Thanks to friends, I am also lining up some live presentations in Canada for later in the year. Keep an eye on my forthcoming talks page for details.

My headphones seem to have been permanently in situ. My grandchildren, who I Skype regularly, must think these strange protrusions are part of my anatomy. I spent a very interesting hour or so being interviewed, via Skype, by FindMyPast, as part of their user panel. As I have been doing family history significantly longer than any of my three interviewers had been alive, I had to try not to appear a total dinosaur but it was good fun and hopefully useful. It does sound as if there are some moves in the pipeline to make searching more user friendly.

What else is on the agenda? Well, preparations for Unlock the Past’s 8th cruise are progressing. My partner in crime now appears on the speakers’ list alongside myself. I will soon know exactly what sessions I shall be presenting during the cruise and I am getting very excited about it. A booklet that I have written for the Unlock The Past stable is also due for publication any day now ’Til Death Us Do Part: causes of death 1300-1948. It will also be available as an ebook – watch this space! You may find me (or indeed Mistress Agnes) on the Unlock the Past stall at Who Do you Think You Are Live?. I shall be helping on other stalls too, as well as giving talks, being an expert to ask and meeting up with other one-place studiers but I am there all three days, so look forward to catching up with old friends and meeting new.

Finally, for all those involved in local history groups, this website is worth a look. Plenty of ideas about conducting research, engaging the public and securing funding.

Cyril Albany Braund 1915-1965 #1ancestor

A number of family historian bloggers take part in the #52 ancestors project, where they write about one ancestor each week. I don’t have time to participate but today would have been my father’s 100th birthday, so I thought that I would devote today’s blog post to him. This then is my #1ancestor.

My father died when I was nine. When I decided to write the story of his branch of my family, in the late 1990s, I realised that I had spent many hours tracing more distant ancestors but that I had neglected to document my grandfather and father, whom I had known. So I decided to research their lives and published their story in In the Shadow of the Iron Horse.

Although I have very good recall of my early childhood, my own memories of my father are fleeting; probably because he worked long and unsocial hours, so our time together was limited. I was able to talk to my mother but inevitably, now she is no longer here to be questioned, I realise that there is still so much I don’t know. I have some facts. Dad, Cyril Albany Braund, was the middle of the three sons of Albany and Elizabeth Ann [Bessie] Braund née Hogg. All three boys were born within three and a half years so times were hard for the family, who were not well off. My grandfather, Albany, was a cleaner and later a porter for London South Western Railway.

Dad went to infants’ school at St. Mark’s in Battersea; a one room school attached to the church. The story in the family is that Dad and his brothers often had to take it in turns to attend school, so that they could share a single pair of boots. Another story relates that Dad, who was very keen on drawing, had to swap his teddy bear in order to obtain a pencil, because the family were so poor. Drawing and painting was a lifelong hobby, as was music. He taught himself to play the piano in the pub owned by the parents of his great friend Eric John Golding. Dad was eighteen and earning before he could afford piano lessons.

At the age of eight, Dad transferred to St Peter’s School, in Plough Lane, Battersea, an enormous, seven story, building, where he remained until leaving school when he was fourteen. He had been punctual and regular in his attendance and exemplary in his behaviour. Like his older brother, he began working in the exciting new world of the cinema as a ‘page boy’, employed in the foyer under the supervision of the doorman. This was the ‘dream job’ for boys of the time; perhaps akin to being a computer games developer today. He joined The Majestic, Clapham in an era when silent films were giving way to the talkies’, eventually working his way up to become a projectionist.

Cyril Albany Braund 1945In 1939, Dad was employed by the Granada Group, who owned several London cinemas, at their Wandsworth Road branch. Thanks to a wonderful history of Granada Cinemas (Morgan, Guy Red Roses Every Night: an account of London cinemas under fire Quality Press 1948), I know many details of life in this cinema chain during the second world war. For example, on the 28th of August 1939, the staff were read the following memo from the managers of the Granada Group. A priority air-raid warning will be given to cinema managers when enemy aircraft are sighted over the North Sea. You will not on any account pass on this priority warning to your audience. You will merely give the warning RED ROSES to your staff so that they will be prepared. Today, this conjures up rather farcical images of staff rushing round whispering behind their hands and it seems unlikely that regular patrons would have remained ignorant of the password for long.

Nearly half the men Dads age were in uniform and with the extension of the call-up, in May 1940, he enlisted, together with Eric Golding. They joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve on the 4th of July; thus losing their independence on Independence Day. Dad became Gunner 1351715 and was described as being five foot eleven inches tall, with a thirty two inch chest, black hair, hazel eyes and a fresh complexion. I have used service records and family memorabilia to follow Dad’s second world war career, part of which was spent on Sicily and in southern Italy. He was actively involved in the entertainment of the army camp. By the spring of 1945, the end of the war was in sight and Dad was effected by the War Cabinets move to draft naval and air force personnel into army. On the 13th of March 1945 he was officially discharged from 2859 squadron on enlistment in the army. His air force report read, A very good type Airman though not a good J.N.C.O. He could be well employed in his civilian trade. General Conduct excellent.

In the spring of 1945, he met my mother and despite the RAF report, he spent time as a gunnery instructor in Ireland. Once the war was over, Dad remained in the army, as a sergeant with the Department of National Service Entertainment, resuming his civilian trade as a cinema projectionist. He returned to Naples and helped to set up a cinema at Pomigliano. Dad was formally transferred to the army reserve on the 23rd of August 1946, with effect from the 6th of November. His reference reads This N.C.O. has proved himself a capable worker and given consistently good service in the Cinema Division. He is a qualified projectionist and is keen hardworking and reliable. An efficient and valued N.C.O..

He went back to his work as a projectionist and my parents married in 1947. During the first months of their marriage, they lived with their respective parents, staying with each other only on Dads days off. In June 1948 they found a flat, 65 Mallinson Road, just round the corner from Cyrils family. During the first years of their marriage my parents often went on outings and holidays with Eric Golding and his wife, Eileen. In 1951, this time with mums school friend Joyce Chaplin and her husband Peter, they took their first holiday on the Isle of Wight. They stayed at Norton Grange holiday camp in Yarmouth where, fifty years later, their granddaughters performed regularly with the Shanklin Town Brass Band.

Dad was never really satisfied with his working life and changed jobs fairly frequently to try to find something more congenial. One of my particular memories is of being aware of how much he hated his short spell of employment at Cinerama cinemas. His dream had been to set up his own business with Eric Golding but this never transpired. He left for work on the first day of the school holidays in 1965 and died of a heart attack on his journey.

So I have managed to document quite a few facts. When my mother died, I found ‘Forces War Record’, recorded for her by my father in 1946. I had no real recollection of how he sounded. I was able to get this recording put on to disc, just before it deteriorated beyond saving. He was sending my mother birthday greetings. He had got the date wrong but they hadn’t know each other long at this point! I was amazed to hear that his Battersea roots were not noticeable in his accent, which was distinctly BBC – probably a legacy of his career as a cinema projectionist – all those clipped tones of the film stars of the 1930s! So I have his voice.

What I strive to recapture however is some sense of his personality. I know he always felt inadequate in the shadow of mum’s more middle class family and certainly was of the opinion that he had to make up for her ‘marrying beneath her’. I do have a few diaries of the 1960s, which record notes of appointments and events. Just occasionally Dads personality shines through the bald statements of fact in these diaries. One such entry is Beat Bob at Chess!!, accompanied by a doodle of a flag. Family pets also get a mention in the diaries, for example, the birth of the family dog, Sparky. Even the death of the remarkably long-lived hamster, Nora, is recorded, in the same way as the many deaths of family members, with her name surrounded by a black box. I do have the chance to learn more, as I inherited all Dad’s letters to mum, written whilst they were apart in 1945 and 1946. So far, I have only had time to skim through these but I have promised myself I will study them in detail to try to recapture more of the essence of the man behind the facts that I have gleaned.

More details of Dad’s life and that of his father, can be found in my book In the Shadow of the Iron Horse which is available from me.