A Week of Historical and other Weirdness

Some of the more bizarre happenings in my recent life include a surreal game of Guess Who (you have to guess the identity of the person depicted on a card) via Skype with my 2½ year old grandson. After the more standard questions ‘Have they got curly hair?’ and ‘Have they got a hat?’ we had ‘Are they an acrobat?’ and ‘Do they like peanut butter?’ Note to self – MUST hurry up and create a family history version of this game using old family photos.

Then I had to renew my driving licence as the picture is ten years old. Good excuse for the DVLA to relieve me of £17. Allegedly I could do this online and they would magically harvest my photograph and signature from that on my passport even if the passport photo is the same as that on the ten year old driving licence????

Next, an email inviting me to look at documents that had been left for me in Dropbox. I didn’t recognise the sender but a quick Google (other search engines are available) of the unusual name revealed the identity of the person who wanted me to see their files. Can anyone think why the American woman’s basket ball coach would possibly want to send me anything via Dropbox?

And in a restaurant chain near me, I view their newly revamped menu. I quite like this chain as they provide nominally ‘free’ salad. My dressing of choice is ‘red devil’. In the absence of this on their new ‘sauce bar’ I opted for ‘Triple H’.  If you are ever tempted to ladle copious amounts (or even a mere dribble) of Triple H sauce on your salad, don’t, just don’t. Don’t get me wrong, I like hot and spicy but this defied description. Hating waste I ploughed my way through half a bowl of Triple H bedecked salad and two litres of water (yes, I know that isn’t the ideal solution) before admitting defeat.

So what else have recent days brought? Firstly, the mystery of the missing gravestones. On rechecking the memorial inscriptions of the local churchyard that we completed three years ago, looking for additions, we found that two large slate stones had disappeared. It seemed that their removal was recent, as the holes in the ground showed no signs of grass mowings or water. No one seemed to know why the stones had disappeared. They were huge and heavy. I provided photographs as ‘evidence’. We began looking for someone with a hernia, broken suspension and a new slate worktop. Bit of an anti-climax, it turned out that they had been legitimately removed by a local stonemason for refurbishing. Strange than they didn’t tell anyone though!

captureThere have been a couple of strange Twitter conversations. Who would have thought that one could follow the course of the Battle of Hastings on Twitter? Then another seventeenth century addict posted a woodcut of the time (censored here) depicting what appeared to be a medical procedure. There followed a discussion as to exactly what was going on: vasectomy? (surely not) circumcision? (probably not at this date) who knows? Note that the patients appeared to be smiling! Answers on a postcard.

Then I have been compiling a full risk assessment of our living history activities ready for our Family Fun Day next week. You have NO IDEA how dangerous it is. Will you trip over a long skirt, inhale glue when creating a plague rat, drop a bucket on your foot or a pike on your head? Will you have a heart attack from the weight of our armour or strangle yourself with our bodice laces? Are you up for all this danger? Join us if you dare.

Serendipity or ……….?

You know those weird ‘meant to be’ moments when a facet of your family history falls in to place and it seems to be more than just co-incidence? There are even suggestions from the scientific community that memories can be passed on through our DNA. Genetic memory or not, there are certainly some inexplicable twists of fate that lurk within the stories of some people’s family history research trails. Often we find that our skills, abilities and interests reflect those of our ancestors. To be honest, we’ve an awful lot of ancestors out there; it probably isn’t too difficult to find someone who shares your musical ability or your love of dressmaking. I feel drawn to certain landscapes and parts of the country. Many of these have ancestral connections but my ancestry spreads over most of the counties of southern England, with a few rogues from the north, so again not much of a co-incidence.

Serendipity then. Here is my hairs standing up on the back of the neck tale. I spent most of my adult life living on the Isle of Wight. I chose to live there and have an affinity to the island but as yet, no ancestral connections, although my parents went there on honeymoon (no I wasn’t conceived there!). Although both my children were born on the island, neither was christened there. The elder was baptised in a Buckinghamshire village during a brief, work related, three years that we spent living in that county. The younger was christened, far from home, at the annual church service arranged by our one-name society.


Great great grandmother Anne Howe née Stratford

Several years after we returned to the island from Buckinghamshire I took another look at my paternal grandmother’s side of the family. This was decades before online research made life easier. My uncle, by then deceased, as was everyone on this side of the family, had been adamant that his grandmother came from Cumberland. It made some sort of sense, her husband was from Northumberland. After diligent searching I found her, not in Cumberland but in Buckinghamshire. At the time I was living there I had no knowledge of any ancestral links to the county. She was born fairly close to where I had been living. In those days, the only way to see the census returns was to travel to London, so it was some months before I could take this any further back and reach the next generation, my great-great grandmother, who, the census revealed, had lived in not just the same county, not just in the same village but in the same road that I had inhabited for three years.


We so nearly didn’t live there. At the time neither I nor my husband drove. The houses we had been looking at were all in the town where he was to be working. Typically, in the days before online house-hunting, the estate agent had also sent details of properties that did not meet our spec, one of them was this village property about five miles out of town. A colleague offered to drive us out for a viewing and we were hooked. Thus my elder daughter was baptised in the same church as her 3 times great grandmother, although we did not know it at the time.

Even my current home has a family history connection. I had decided to downsize and relocate to North Devon but had not yet started to search seriously for a new home. We were visiting Devon and taking someone round parishes that had connections to their ancestry. We drew up near the churchyard. This was churchyard number seven. It was, inevitably, pouring with rain. By this time I was losing the will and in need of drying my socks on the car radiator so I remained in  the car whilst my companions plunged knee deep in wet graveyard. I looked up and saw a For Sale sign. After six months and various trials and tribulations, that are an almost essential concomitant of UK house buying, I moved in. Do I have any ancestral connections to my current home? Well – and there will be questions on this later – my 4 times great grandfather’s, sister’s, husband’s father was baptised here – I’m not sure that counts!

More Writing, Nature’s Wonders and Family History Events

dscf3381So what has this week brought? A hedgehog joining the two frogs who are crazy enough to inhabit the scummy indentation that passes for a pond in my garden. Luckily this hedgehog was not actually in the pond, though others of its species passed that way, with unfortunate results, before I inserted an escape route. The garden revamp is progressing slowly. I have (that would be the royal I) reclaimed three foot of garden by decimating the privet hedge. I have also had fun creating a nature book for my descendants. I seem to have photographs of quite a number of unidentifiable plants and birds. The latter are mostly waterfowl that do not feature in my not-so-comprehensive ‘Birds of Britain and Europe’ book. Do the authors not know how inconvenient this is?

Writing, of various kinds, has been featuring highly on the agenda. I have been introduced as a forthcoming columnist for the In-Depth Genealogist. Do take a look at what they have to offer. I’ve drafted the first article for my column, which will focus on the work (paid and unpaid) of women. The plan is to alternate between household tasks, home-working and work outside the home; I’m looking forward to it. My Telling Your Family’s Story course for Pharos is into its second week and I’ve already had one online ‘chat’ with an enthusiastic band of participants. Just wish I had time to write up more of my own family history! The course is being re-run in February and Pharos are already taking bookings. They have also begun to advertise another of my courses Discovering Your British Family and Local Community in the Early Twentieth Century. You can sign up for this from anywhere in the world, although the focus will be on British research. If you are local there are still places on Devon History Society’s Nineteenth and Twentieth Century One-place Studies course that I am leading on 18th October. What else can I get you to sign up for? Oh yes, a trip back in time to the 1600s on October 24th. This is ideal for family historians wanting to know more about seventeenth century social history and for families. It will be a great chance to encourage your descendants to engage with history and heritage – there will be armour to try on, pikes to wield, Master Christopher’s treatments to avoid…… A number of you out there (unbelievably, more than one person and a dog read this blog) have said you’d like to come but you do need to register or the organisers will think no one is interested.

Thanks to Exeter Authors’ Association pointing out that my books are available on Amazon.com, as well as Amazon.co.uk, I decided that I needed to create an Amazon.com author profile. Annoyingly you can’t just transfer the one from .co.uk. More technological challenges, especially trying to make my RSS feed (had to look that one up) appear on .com, which you can’t do on .co.uk. By the time I’d done this there was little time left for actually writing anything. #Daisy is expanding but I will give details of that another time.

I must also mention the excellent Devon Family History Society conference last weekend. There was music, there was cake – always a good combination – there were chances to meet friends and browse the many displays. The speakers, Nick Barrett and Dick Eastman, were excellent and really made us think about the future of family history. The future is bringing your family to our event on 24th October!

Mostly about Writing #authorsinacafé #pigeongate

Take three authors, a promoter of books in Devon and a pigeon, mix them with the excellent menu on offer at Bideford’s Late and Lunch café on the quay and you have a recipe for #authorsinacafe. It’s official, I am now involved in a writers’ support group. We aren’t quite sure exactly where we are going but at least we have started from here. The general idea is to provide mutual encouragement,  promotion and support, as well as a break from talking to ourselves and our characters. By coincidence all of the authors, as well as two others who we hope will join us, have an historical slant to their writing but we may branch out from there. Special thanks to Ian Hobbs of Devon Book Club for taking a morning of his holiday to join us. Oh, the pigeon, I hear you enquire. Being on the riverside, café goers are used to protecting their paninis from the ravages of the seagulls but this time a wayward pigeon was tempted by the gorgeous muffins on offer. He flew in from the quay and alighted on a table. He obviously picked the right one as the resourceful occupant competently grabbed the offending bird and deposited it outside, amidst resounding cheers. I once did something similar with a bat – long story.

dscf3202All this meeting and chatting with other authors is a wonderful way of procrastinating but I really have made some #daisy progress; honestly. First a foray round some impressive Victorian villas, trying to identify which one my character may have been working in during the 1890s. Once again I find myself peering at people’s properties, taking notes and photographs and arousing suspicion. It seems that the name of the house concerned once applied to several homes and then in the twentieth century referred to a different dwelling entirely. There really should be a law preventing people from changing the names of their homes. Of course the bottom line is that, for the purposes of fiction, its doesn’t really matter which house it was but actually it so does. Now off to write 100 times ‘I can pretend it is any house I wish’ but it still matters! I have roughed out a chronology and done some more research to extend the biographies of some of my characters and since you asked 3500 – ok, I know that isn’t much but I have been very busy sewing shifts for Swords and Spindles (there’s got to be a tongue-twister in there), being auditioned as a WI speaker, despite being in my fourth decade of giving talks, writing biographies of local World War I service men, I could go on. It was when I ‘spring’ cleaned the bathroom I knew I really was procrastinating.

Not writing but reading – Inexplicably, my electricity tripped out at 3.45am. I managed to grovel for a torch and padded off to investigate. The trip switch would not reset. You may be wondering why this is a problem 3.45am is clearly not getting up time, even for me, so why not just go back to sleep. Quite apart from not wanting a freezer full of food to disintegrate into defrosted mush, the only way I can get to sleep is to read; reading requires light. I debated using the torch but feared for the battery life and decided I really needed to preserve that for an emergency. I wandered off to get my Kindle (other e-readers are available). I then realised that it does not illuminate without the very handy case that my offspring kindly gave me for Christmas, so out of bed again to fetch that. By this time I was further from sleep than ever. I did have Saving Sophie by Sam Carrington that I had appropriately been saving – bad plan. It is gripping, page-turning, well written but sadly not sleep inducing. It took daylight to eliminate each fuse in my fusebox in turn in order to identify the offender; this accomplished, power was restored and I could begin my day. I was reluctant to save Sophie until tonight but places to go, blog posts to write.

History Courses and Presentations, Family Fun and a Final Word on Rockstars

I was so pleased to see that many of my friends were named amongst the medallists and ‘top tens’ of the ‘Genealogical Rockstars’ poll. Congratulations to all the winners, nominees and to those who weren’t nominated but none the less play a vital part in keeping the wheels of the family history world rolling. The list of nominees gets more and more impressive by the year and I am always awed and slightly puzzled as to how my name gets included on a list that contains the big names of the genealogical community. Although I was just out of the medals this year, I was humbled and honoured to be 4th in Britain and the Commonwealth and 5th in Europe. Thank you to John Reid for organising this and for being so restrained in the face of those who chose to throw brick-bats rather than bouquets. Thank you so much to anyone who voted and helped to make this a representative and valid exercise and thank you especially if I was amongst those who you felt deserved your vote.


Jo Rutherford Photography

Now for the Family Fun, with apologies to those who also follow Swords and Spindles’ blog. In my guise as Mistress Agnes, along with my Swords and Spindles colleagues, I will be giving those of you within traveling distance the chance to enter my world. On Monday 24 October we will be turning the clock back to Bideford’s hey day. Mingle with Sir Francis, friend to John Davie, Bideford tobacco merchant. Try on our armour, dress as we do or play with the toys of the time. Would you cope as a Tudor housewife? Just how heavy is that bucket of water, how difficult is it to card wool, or to churn butter? The Parliamentarians are building Chudleigh Fort, come and train as a pikeman and help to defend the town – we will not ask questions about which side you are on. Take part in our craft activities. Plague is threatening Bideford, you may see rats and plague masks. Do you know what food we would have eaten or how we ‘cure’ you when you are ill? Master Christopher will be available for consultations. If the weather is fine Master Christopher will even be shooting people. This event is ideal to keep your descendants happy over half term but it is for folk of all ages. Anyone who is interested in family, local or social history will be able to find out more about life in the 1600s. We will be at The Pollyfield Centre, Avon Road, East-the-Water, Bideford from 10.30-4.00. Entrance is free for children, with a suggested donation of £2 for adults. Please ‘express your interest’ to ensure that the event goes ahead. This is being run by Bideford Creatives as part of The Way of the Wharves project. You can also visit the event page on Facebook.

Apart from a flurry of seventeenth century talks to adults and coping with the responses to our Swords and Spindles mail shot, I have been showing people round the local area, enjoying their reactions as they revisit the homes of their ancestors. Add to this, listening to a fascinating local history presentation about fifteenth and sixteenth century recusants in my home parish and it has been a very full week. It is always a pleasure when my audience enters into the spirit of the presentation, so I was amused to receive a thank you message that read, ‘I am sorry that you could not come to give your presentation to us this week. You will pleased to know that Mistress Agnes, who you sent in your place, gave a very entertaining and informative talk.’

One Pharos course has come to an end and I look forward to starting to tutor another (that is a sell out) next week. There are however spaces on Devon History Society’s day course that I am conducting at The Plough in Torrington on 18 October. This is a course for anyone who is studying people and places of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Non-members of the society are welcome. A booking form, which also covers other October events can be downloaded from their website.

Clipboards, Cruises and Challenges of the Technological Kind (yes again) and books – always books!

A variety of activities this week. Firstly, I was lucky enough to win a free electronic copy of  Saving Sophie by Sam Carrington. This had to be emailed to me for me to email to my Kindle errr ummmm. This sounded like a technical challenge too far. After diligent research (I Googled for instructions) I was ridiculously pleased to discover that my Kindle does indeed have an email address – well who knew? Not me, obviously. Mission accomplished and I am looking forward to reading my prize.

More peculiarities on the telephone. During a boring car journey I decided to have a conversation with someone who wanted me to change my electricity supplier. Actually he wanted the phone’s owner to change their electricity supplier but was happy to talk to me when I explained that said owner was driving. After moments of incredulity on his part when I confirmed that there really was no gas supply to the property, the next question was ‘do you have your latest bill with you?’ Hands up who carries their electricity bill with them in the car at all times. Then not an unsolicited call but an attempt on my part to find out who could verify my identity for prevention of money laundering purposes, not many people apparently. This needed to be done in a hurry during the day, when those of my neighbours who might qualify were at work. I telephoned to enquire whether a retired accountant/doctor/teacher etc. might be acceptable (the village is stuffed full of those of a certain age). It seemed it had to be someone in office, presumably so that their identity could be checked on a professional register. The person on the other end suggested I popped in to the local bank. I had already explained that I lived in a small rural village. ‘Popping’ involves a six mile drive, many circuits of the block in search of a parking place and a six mile drive home. Oh of course, I could get a bus but not on a Wednesday. Did he have any other ideas? I could use my ‘local’ post office’s checking service. Ah my local post office was, thanks to the wisdom of someone who has never lived here, closed. The man is now sounding desperate, ‘Did I have a church?’ Oh yes, I have one of those just over there, a vicar though is a different matter. One and a half vicars for seven parishes and neither lives here. At this point I gave up, planning to  accost a teacher outside a school, or wait until later in the day. The urban/rural divide never seemed so wide, the chap on the phone clearly had no clue how the other half lived.

Want to know how to arouse fear and suspicion amongst your neighbours? Wander round in pairs carrying a clipboard, pausing now and again to stare meaningfully at a property. In fact, my friend and I were preparing a village trail but I am sure there are now rumours of extensive development or criminal activity.

UTP0263-2TMy Harnessing the Facebook Generation booklet, with ideas for inspiring young people with a love of history and heritage, is finally available in Canada (as well as the UK, Australia and as an ebook). Unlock the Past, for whom the booklet was written, have announced their genealogical cruising plan for 2017-18. If you are thinking about booking, don’t hesitate, you’ll love it.

The season of evening presentations is well and truly upon me. Quite apart from any school Swording and Spindling, did I really agree to do seven presentations to adults (I put ‘adult presentations’ there at first but it sounded a bit dodgy) in one month (one down six to go)? In addition, that is to finishing tutoring one Pharos course and starting another. Incidentally, there is still time to book for the online course  Writing and Telling your Family History, which starts on 28th September. It is lovely to see some familiar names amongst those who are signed up already. One day I will get time to write up more of my own family history!

Rockstars and Unsung Heroes

It is that time of year again when John Reid of Anglo Celtic Connections has the unenviable task of running a poll to find the ‘rockstars’ of the genealogical world. Every year a few people mutter about it being inappropriate or it being unfair because those who are most active on social media usually do best. Let us think about this. Yes, I suppose it does strike a little of reality TV shows but the poll was started to help societies and conference organisers find good speakers and I would challenge the critics to think of a better way to do this. I know of and indeed in the past have been instrumental in compiling, lists of speakers. Sometimes these require nominations before you can be included. Imagine the scenario: it is the committee meeting of the Blankshire family history society Mr Most Boring Speaker in the World has been chairman since 19hundred and frozen to death, basically because no-one wants to stand against him. ‘Oh,’ he slips in under AOB when everyone wants to go home, ‘it is ok for you to nominate me for this speakers’ list again this year isn’t it’. There is no question mark there because this isn’t actually a question. No one dares to demure. His nomination goes through and he is there on the list again. ‘Rockstars’ may not be beyond reproach but it is effective and it does what it is meant to do.

Yes, people who are active on social media do tend to do well but perhaps this is because today’s ‘rockstars’ need to be able to enter this world and it could be argued that social media is part of being active and helpful and a star in the modern genealogical firmament. I always encourage people to vote, which is embarrassing as my name is on the list and I am really rubbish at self-promotion. Of course I do this because I hope people will vote for me, it wouldn’t be honest to say otherwise – I am after all just the tinsiest but competitive. Primarily though, I do it because I want people to vote (whoever they vote for), that way the competition is more valid. There is no kudos in coming first if you win with five votes, three of which are from your parents and your cat (NB especially with this year’s tightening up to prevent multiple voting, cats are not eligible to vote). Most importantly, I want people who actually understand the family history world to be the ones doing the voting. I wish there was a way of excluding votes from mates down the pub and only allowing these who are members of genealogical or historical societies, or at least involved in family history to vote but there isn’t. The only way to counter the votes from the uninformed ‘mates’ to is encourage the genuinely knowledgable to vote, people who have heard the nominees speak, have read their books, who follow their blogs and so on. If people vote for me I want it to be because they genuinely feel I have made a valuable contribution not because I’ve asked them to and they have no clue about what a family historian actually does.

The names on the list are for the most part, internationally known. Each year I like to also pay tribute to the less well known. Those who keep small genealogical societies going. Those who give freely of their time to someone who comes wandering round their local graveyard looking for ancestors. Those whose telephone rings when a speaker has dropped out at the last minute and yes, they will go and talk to a dozen people for very little reward. Of course some of the ‘big name’ nominees do this too but there are many whose names will never reach this list but without whom the family and local history worlds would be the poorer. You can only have people at the top of the mountain if there is a solid base underneath. If you are part of that solid base then I thank you.

So yes please vote and encourage others to do the same but vote for those who you feel genuinely deserve it. Those whose writing make you feel informed or entertained or both. Those whose talks you will go to just because it is X speaking and you know you will enjoy it, even though you have no interest in the topic. Those who are generous with their time and expertise and not just after the financial rewards. Vote because you understand what these people have given to the family history world. If that means you vote for me, well thank you but if you are involved in family or local history, or history per se, please vote for someone (or several someones) and help to make this competition valid and vote to make your genealogical rockstars the ones who do well.

Thank you John for organising this once again. As ever, I am honoured and humbled to be on the list.