Fanny Amelia’s (family history) Story

Strictly of course it is only part of her story, as there is more to be found but if I wait until it is ‘finished’ I may wait forever. So here is my attempt to preserve the memory of a lady who has no living descendants and for whom we have no photograph (yet). She is someone who could so easily be lost to history. In fact, in the past, family members did a very good job of expunging her from the oral record. As her closest living relative (jointly with my six second cousins), I felt it was up to me to investigate her life and record what I discovered, warts and all.

Fanny Amelia was the third daughter of Philip and Mary Woolgar née Cardell and was born at 6.30pm on 5th February 1848.[1] The time of birth on the certificate should indicate that this was a multiple birth but there are no other registrations for the quarter and district who could be the other sibling.[2] The address is indistinct but appears to be Cockers Haven, Finchley.[3] This almost certainly refers to a small settlement on the southern edge of Finchley Common, near the Red Lion, which was formerly named Cuckold’s Haven.[4] Finchley is now considered to be part of north London but in the mid-nineteenth century, was a small, newly-developing, settlement, distinct from the metropolis.

Fanny Amelia was baptised at St. Michael’s, Highgate on the 5th of March 1848. Her father, Philip, was described as a gardener.[5] Fanny was a surprise when I discovered her existence in the 1980s, as part of my investigations into my family history. Tales of this family were woven into my earliest memories. Why had Fanny not taken her place alongside her siblings on the first family tree I devised at the age of seven? My great-aunt, from whom I gained most of my family stories of this branch, would have been an adult when Fanny died. The families lived in close proximity, surely they would have known each other. There were photographs and recollections of Fanny’s parents, her siblings and their families but nothing of Fanny remained. Although Fanny outlived all her brother and sisters, there was no mention of her. The only acknowledgement that there may have been an additional child was the vague suggestion that Philip and Mary might have had a daughter called Sophie, so even Fanny’s name was lost to the family history. Until that is, I began my adventures in the world of archives and microfilms, of ledgers and registers, long before the advent of the internet.

The whole family appear to have escaped enumeration in the 1851 census but there was Fanny, with her parents, in 1861[7] and 1871.[8] Fanny cannot be found in 1881.[9] It has been established that she is not the Amelia Woolgar who, in 1881, was working as the cook in the Alleyn Park,[10] household of hop merchant, Stanford Mountain.[11]

On 15th November 1884, Fanny Amelia married widower, William Ellington, at St. Clement’s, Hastings, Sussex. The witnesses were Maude and H Bedwell and Thomas Covell. At the time of the marriage, William Ellington was a coachman.[12] He is inconsistent about his age and place of birth but the consensus seems to be that he was born about 1823 in Peterborough, Northamptonshire,[13] so he was considerably older than Fanny. William and his first wife, Helen, had been in service in Herne Hill for many years[14] and this is presumably how he and Fanny met.

William and Fanny Ellington’s son, George Frederick, was born in Hastings a year after they married.[15] There was another short-lived child, Richard Collings Stanley Ellington, who was born in 1891 and died the following year.[16] In 1891, the family were living in two rooms in part of 19 Cornfield Terrace, Hastings and William was working as a bath-chair man. Ten years later, the family had gained a room and were living at 100 Bohemia Road; William was still running his bath-chair business in Hastings and George was working as a compositor.[17] Although no death registration has been found for William Ellington,[18] by 1911 Fanny was a widow and can be found in the census visiting the Pierpoint family in Dulwich.[19] By this time, her son George was a boarder in the household of Harriet Blackmar, at 15 Duke Street, Eastbourne, Sussex and was still working as a compositor. [20]

On 2 May 1911, just weeks after the census was taken, Fanny was admitted to the workhouse in Constance Road, East Dulwich[21] because she was ‘temporarily disabled’ and ‘allegedly insane’. She was discharged a week letter, to Horton Asylum and described as being destitute and temporarily disabled.[22] Horton Asylum, in Epsom, Surrey, was to become noted for pyrotheraphy, an experimental treatment for the general paralysis of the insane, which was a manifestation of syphilis. This treatment involved infecting the sufferers with malaria. It was thought that the resulting high fever would destroy the spirochetes involved in syphilis. Horton was deemed suitable as it had an isolation unit, which would prevent the malaria spreading to other patients. It seems that this was pioneered in 1917, so Fanny, had she been suffering from general paralysis of the insane, would have escaped this treatment.[23]

I don’t know how long Fanny spent at Horton but on 30 December 1915, she was readmitted to the workhouse from 18 Hindmans Road. In 1911, this was the home of a younger generation of the Pierpoint family.[24] I can find no family connection with the Pierpoints, so perhaps they were just friends. Once again Fanny was regarded as ‘temporarily disabled’ and ‘allegedly insane’.[25] After just six days she was removed to Cane Hill Pauper Lunatic Asylum in Coulsdon, Surrey.[26] By this time, Horton had been requisitioned for military use.[27]

Fanny Ellington died in the asylum on 12 January 1922 from valvular disease of the heart and congestion of the lungs, both of an indefinite duration, hours after suffering a small cerebral haemorrhage. The death was registered by her son, George, who was then of 2 Grove Road, Chertsey, Surrey.[28] There was no mention of her mental state.

George Ellington married Lily Wade in 1932 in Islington district,[29] she was in her fifties so there were no children. In 1939 they were living in a tobacconist’s shop at 67 Guildford Street, Chertsey, which Lily ran; she was also a hairdresser.[30] George was still working as a compositor. They both died in 1960.[31]

The generosity of the genealogical world is outstanding. With the help of a friend, I have attempted to access the records of Cane Hill Asylum, which were allegedly in Croydon Museum. All they have is the bald statement of her admission. The quest is on for the medical records, which I understand from another helpful family historian, may be with the relevant NHS Trust. There is still the possibility of records for Horton Asylum, which are at the London Metropolitan Archives. I may have to call in another favour here. I also want to find out where she was buried; I have established that it was not at Cane Hill. The asylum was closed in 1992.[32]

So this is Fanny’s story. I do hope that more research will mean that I can add to it. Watch this space! In the absence of a picture of Fanny, I offer you her sisters, Caroline and Mary Ann [Polly], sadly, although Caroline had five daughters, I am their only living descendant too. P.S. I am quite glad that I didn’t inherit the ears!

Caroline Leighton née Woolgar 1842-1919.JPGMary Ann (Polly) Hicks née Woolgar 1845-1907.JPG

[1]    The birth certificate of Fanny Amelia Woolgar 1848, from the General Register Office.

[2]    General Registrar’s indexes of birth.

[3]    The birth certificate of Fanny Amelia Woolgar 1848, from the General Register Office.

[4]     A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 6, Friern Barnet, Finchley, Hornsey With Highgate. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1980. Via  accessed 4 September 2019.

[5]    The baptism registers of Highgate, Middlesex, via

[6]    Oral evidence from Gwendoline Catherine Braund née Smith and Ella Mary Bird née Woolgar.

[7]    1861 census for Rosendale Road, Norwood, Surrey RG9 367 folio 56.

[8]    1871 census for 1 Rosendale Road, Norwood, Surrey RG10 692 folio 59.

[9]    Indexes to the 1881 census of England and Wales via and

[10]  Alleyn Park is in Dulwich.

[11]  1881 census for Alleyn Park, Westbrook, Camberwell, Surrey RG11 669 folios 35 & 36. General Registrar’s indexes of birth and marriage. 1871 census for Warrior Road, Lambeth, Surrey RG10 679 folio 110.

[12]  The marriage certificate of Fanny Amelia Woolgar and William Ellington 1884, from the local Register Office.

[13]  1871 census for Herne Hill, Lambeth, Surrey RG10 686 folio 43.

[14]  1871 census for Herne Hill, Lambeth, Surrey RG10 686 folio 43.

[15]  General Registrar’s indexes of birth; 1891 census for 19 Cornfield Terrace, Hastings, Sussex RG12 764 folio 83.

[16]  General Registrar’s indexes of birth and death; 1911 census for 2 Upland Road, Dulwich, Surrey RG14 2469 folio 481.

[17]  1901 census for 100 Bohemia Road, Hastings Sussex RG13 869 folio 68.

[18]  General Registrar’s indexes of death.

[19]  1911 census for 2 Upland Road, Dulwich, Surrey RG14 2469 folio 481.

[20]   1911 census for 15 Duke Street, Eastbourne, Sussex RG14 4822 folio 162.

[21]   Constance Road Workhouse accessed 4 September 2019.

[22]   1911 Admissions Register for Workhouse, Constance Road, East Dulwich, Surrey via Originals at London Metropolitan Archives CABG/185/31.

[23]  Horton Asylum accessed 3 September 2019. Julius Wagner-Jauregg (1857-1940): Introducing fever therapy in the treatment of neurosyphilis accessed 4 September 2019.

[24] 1911 census for 18 Hindmans Road, East Dulwich RG14 2466 folio 401.

[25]  1915-16 Admissions Register for Workhouse, Constance Road, East Dulwich, Surrey via  Originals at London Metropolitan Archives CABG/185/40.

[26]  1915-16 Admissions Register for Workhouse, Constance Road, East Dulwich, Surrey via  Originals at London Metropolitan Archives CABG/185/40.

[27]  Cane Hill Asylum, Coulsdon, Surrey accessed 4 September 2019.

[28] Death certificate (pdf) of Fanny Amelia Ellington, from the General Registrar.

[29] General Registrar’s indexes of marriage.

[30] 1939 Register for 67 Guildford Road Chertsey, Surrey RG101/1876C/006/30 Letter Code: DMCC.

[31] General Registrar’s indexes of death.

[32] accessed 4 September 2019.


Ancestral Ill-health and a bit about Books

It has been a busy week, with some fascinating family history discoveries. As some of you will know, I have been publicly somewhat scathing about the works of fiction that are strewn across the internet, purporting to be someone’s family tree. Not wishing to delve too deeply into people who die before they are born, have children at the age of two, or are allegedly living in three different countries at one and the same time, I attempt to avoid these. Occasionally there may be a nugget of usefulness of course and my recent foray on to did lead to a photograph of my great great grandfather’s brother. I have a picture of g-g-grandfather and there is a likeness. I also found two people whose online trees bore some resemblance to reality and I was able to offer the owners copies of family photographs. One even replied, so I guess that is a bonus.


John and Thomas Dawson

My Ancestry DNA test is currently languishing in the lab waiting to be processed. Yes, I am going to join the ranks of those irritating testees who do not have a tree on Ancestry. I have however added my ancestral surnames to my profile back sufficiently far for any fourth cousins to look for a common ancestor.

I am, as anticipated, making use of some of the original documents that can be accessed via Ancestry, notably collections from London Metropolitan Archives. It was via some workhouse admissions’ and discharge registers that I discovered that my great great aunt had been in the county asylum. Coincidentally, my ‘In Sickness and in Death: researching the ill-health and deaths of your ancestors’ students were discussing asylum records this very week and even better, one has kindly volunteered to look up some potential records about great great aunt that are not online – aren’t people lovely? Now, if any kind soul is at the London Metropolitan Archives with a spare five minutes to investigate her stay in another asylum………

The great thing about running online courses is that you learn so much from your students. You may have spotted a Facebook post from me that referred to the list of 1832 cholera epidemic victims in Manchester. The transcription of this dataset is cunningly hidden away on FindmyPast and what a gem! For the benefit of those not on Facebook, here is the entry for 16 year old Elizabeth Aspin ‘No. 177, Elizabeth Aspin, commonly called Crazy Bess, aged 16. Residence Back Parliament-street. Employment: woman of the town. Constitution: stoutish. Natural susceptibility: subject to diarrhoea after drinking. Predisposing cause: alternately starved and drunk, often sleeping in the street. Exciting cause: drunk on the Reform celebration day the day before her attack, cried passionately when Laurence was taken to the hospital. Locality, crowding, filth &c. for the locality see case 181. Dates of attack and event: seized Friday, August 10th, at 11 pm, recovered August 30th. Communication or non-communication: no known communication with Laurence nor any body else.’ Further research suggests that she was baptised in Manchester in 1817, daughter of Thomas and Ellen and that she survived the epidemic, marrying George Townley in Radcliffe, Manchester in 1836 and moving to Salford.

Advance notice of a couple of book signing/buying opportunities. I will be giving a talk about Barefoot on the Cobbles as well as selling and signing books at The Wine Box in Torquay at 2.00pm on Friday 8th November – wine and books – how can you resist? I am especially pleased about this, as part of the novel is set in Torquay. I will also be at Torrington Craft Fair on 7 December with copies of all my books. A few people have asked if they can get copies of my books at RootsTechLondon. I will have a limited number copies of Remember Then, as that is the subject of my talk but I am travelling in on public transport so will only have other titles if you ask in advance. I need to know by 9 October. I could mention that the festive season is only however many weeks away but I won’t.

How Up to Date is Your Family Tree?

Until recently, I was a columnist for the In-depth Genealogist Magazine and also wrote for their blog. Now the magazine is sadly no more, contributors have been invited to re-post their blog material elsewhere so that it is preserved. This is another post that I wrote for the magazine; it first appeared in September 2017.

Just to be clear, I am not asking whether you have added cousin Mary’s latest grandchild born in 2019. What I mean is, how recently have you looked at your pedigrees, files, conclusions, source citations and narrative family histories to see if they are still current? Family history is a never ending hobby, with so many opportunities. You get stuck on one line, no problem, there are others that you can follow. Almost all of us focus on one part of the tree for a while before turning to another. Maybe we have reached a dead end. Or perhaps an enquiry from another researcher, a DNA match, or a chance to visit and ancestral area will prompt us to dig out the Smith family research that has been left in abeyance for a few years. This is when you realise how much things may have changed in the intervening years.

There are likely to be issues with your source citations. There may broken links due to defunct URLS, record repositories may have moved, or have changed their names. For example, I just looked out some UK research that I had not revisited since 2011 and found references to The Public Record Office (Now known as The National Archives) and the Family Records’ Centre, which no longer exists. Other repositories have changed their catalogue referencing system so that the reference numbers I have quoted are no longer meaningful. It is probably still possible to follow my research trail as the records themselves have not changed but I clearly have some updating to do.

Of course, with the abundance of new records that are now available to me online, or have been indexed, making it harder for my family to hide, there will also be scope for me to add to this part of my family history or at least to tie up some loose ends. This is another way in which my family history is not up to date. You may be familiar with Thomas MacEntee’s concept of the ‘Genealogical Do-Over’, which encourages those of us who have been researching for some time to effectively start over again, filling in gaps, citing sources and making sure that our relationship linkages are sound. When we first start on our magical genealogical journey, instinct often encourages us to race back as far as possible, as fast as possible. Indeed the first question a non-genealogist will often ask is ‘how far back have you got?’ Of course, the important question is not ‘how far back are you?’ but ‘how much do you know about the people on your tree?’

A complete do-over, as advocated by Thomas MacEntee, may be too daunting a prospect for some of us. After all, there are all these exciting new ancestors to be found, why would we spend time going back over the old ones? If we can’t face a ‘re-do’, then we should most certainly be revisiting and revising at regular intervals. Is our family information up-to-date? Is there anything we can add in the light of newly available information? And, most importantly, if we were doing this research now, would we still feel that John is father of Richard and so on?

How ever carefully crafted a pedigree might be, with multiple pieces of evidence pointing to a particular relationship, we need to remember a salutary lesson – we can be wrong. Almost everyone who has spent a few years doing genealogy will have found themselves half way up someone else’s family tree at some point. Either that or we aren’t looking hard enough. Do take time to revisit, to revise, to update. Fresh eyes and fresh sources can often break down the brick wall that led you to abandon a particular family line in the past. Good luck.

News from the Cobbles for fans of Barefoot

I hope no one is reading this expecting Coronation Street spoilers. There have been some lovely communications regarding Barefoot on the Cobbles lately. Firstly, two lovely readers, without internet access, took the trouble to write me letters saying how much they had enjoyed it. I also had an email from a reader from New Zealand who not only praised the book but said I had inspired her to write the story of her own family history tragedy. I have also been contacted by two relatives of the minor characters in the novel. One leading to ongoing research into the family, which may turn out to be intriguing.

This has been interspersed with precious time spent with my descendants; there may be more about that later. I have also started another run of my In Sickness and in Death course and the students are wonderfully active, sharing stories of the ailments of their ancestors. One of the best parts about Pharos courses is the interactions between the students. This has all taken my mind off a few recent technical hitches. Yesterday a very forbearing audience sat through a presentation that really did need the accompanying slides, when my laptop (and a backup laptop) failed to communicate with the projector. I am also juggling external hard drives, in an attempt to recover files that have been damaged due to a corrupted memory stick. Fortunately they were backed up and I realised before I overwrote the complete files for another back up. A salutary lesson not to rely on memory sticks/data sticks/flash drives, call them what you will.

In the course of checking files to see if they were damaged, I came across I passage that I wrote for part of Chapter 1 of Barefoot but which was left on the cutting-room floor. I thought you might like to read a little about Polly as a young girl.


Polly Wakely leaned back on the Devon bank that edged the lane leading from Horns Cross to Peppercombe. Her two younger sisters, tired of gathering bluebells, sat beside her. All had severely plaited hair and identical rough, linen smocks. Polly, on the brink of womanhood, had abandoned her bonnet in an act of defiance. She was meant to be shepherding her sisters home from school but the temptation to linger in the spring sunshine, to stretch the time between the agonies of the classroom and the drudgery of chores at home, had got the better of her. Polly did not begrudge having to mind Ada and Ethel, in fact she quite enjoyed it. She hoped that she might have children of her own one day, in an unfathomable future that seemed impossibly far ahead. The role of chaperone to the younger members of the family had, until recently, been the task of her older sister, Jane. Jane, shy and retiring had found it difficult to discipline the two youngest girls but Polly was firmer. Despite their very different personalities, the Wakely sisters had always been self-sufficient, content with each other’s company and united against the taunts of their classmates.

            A small group of children turned the corner and spotted the Wakelys. Here was an easy target.

            ‘Yer ma tellin’ fortunes today then?’

            Polly was not as feisty as her eldest sister, Lydia, now working away in service but she had had years of practice standing up to bullies and defending her own. She knew that the comment was intended to provoke a reaction, perhaps to initiate a fight. She had succumbed to this when she was younger, arrived home with hair pulled, face scratched and pinafore torn. She considered herself too old for such scraps now and she had learned that there was nothing the tormentors hated more than to be ignored. She turned her back and pretended that she had not heard, putting a warning hand on Ada’s arm, to indicate that she should do the same.

            The oldest boy picked up Ethel’s discarded bouquet.

            ‘What’s these ole flowers for then?’ he mocked, tossing the drooping blooms over the hedge. ‘Going to pop them in the pot and make a spell?’

            Polly groaned inwardly, would this stupid tale never cease to dog their lives. Ethel was less resilient than her sisters and was distressed at the loss of her flowers but she knew that she must not give this big boy the satisfaction of seeing her cry.

            One of the girls in the group was regarding them with sympathy but her companions quelled any attempts at compassion.

            ‘Them’s nought better than gypos, don’t you go frettin’ over them. Turn you into a toad as soon as, they would.’

            Polly knew she had to be brave, that her ma would be cross if Ada or Ethel went home in tears and told tales of what was responsible for their distress. As each of her children left toddlerhood behind, Eliza Wakely had urged them to ignore such taunts. She understood their pain, she had suffered the same in her turn. In fact, thought Polly, although there had been no school to endure in those days, it had been worse for ma and her sisters. Their very surname, Found, had marked the family as out of the ordinary. It had all been ages ago, before even ma’s grafer’s time but still the rumours swirled. Going back some, the original Found had been just that, found in the church porch over Morwenstow way and Polly and her sisters were suffering for it still.


Method Genealogy – standing in the footsteps of your ancestors

Until recently, I was a columnist for the In-depth Genealogist Magazine and also wrote for their blog. Now the magazine is sadly no more, contributors have been invited to re-post their blog material elsewhere so that it is preserved. This is a post that I wrote in October 2016. Comments in {} are new additions.

We are probably all familiar with the concept of Method Acting, where the actor attempts to fully identify with a part by living as their character lived, or sharing experiences but method genealogy? As diligent family historians, it is something that we should all be practising. We need our ancestors to be as fully rounded as possible, to lift them from the two-dimensional pedigree and to understand what their lives would have been like. When I wrote my book Coffers, Clysters, Comfrey and Coifs, about seventeenth century social history, I said, “Our seventeenth century ancestors may be people that we can identify, or they may be lurking, nameless, waiting to be discovered. In either case they existed, therefore we owe it to them to find out more about their way of life.” The same is true of more recent inhabitants of our family tree. {Incidentally, if you would like to contribute to the campaign to make room for me to publish more books – copies can be obtained from me}.

Option 2 - CopyI recently discovered this beautiful photograph of a member of a family that I am researching. It isn’t actually my own ancestry but she will one day I hope be part of a novel based on incidents in her family’s life, so this could be my cover photo. She has bare feet. She lived on a cobbled street. What is it like to walk that street barefoot? I don’t know but I need to. Ok, I’ll be honest, I’m probably going to wait for better weather but I will be trying this. {Yes I wrote the book and yes I tried it – but not for long. And yes – another opportunity to relieve me of book stock and increase the free space in my house}.

Part of my life is spent as an historical interpreter, so I do get to dress in period costume. Have you any idea how difficult it is to go upstairs in a full length skirt? What about household tasks? That bucket you need to fetch from the well could weigh four stone (30kg), oh and you probably need eight bucketfuls of water a day. What is a home like without electricity? I get to try this in my 400 year old cottage when our power fails.

Reality television has often attempted to get people to turn back time. In some cases they go back to their centrally heated homes and twenty-first century luxuries every night. Even if it is a more sustained experiment, the participants know it is only temporary but such experiences are the closest we may get to the lives of our ancestors. What is it like to carve a homestead from virgin forest, to clear, to plough, to plant and to hope for an eventual harvest? How does it feel to set off on a six week sea voyage, knowing  that you will never again see those you have left behind?

If we are physically capable, we need to enter the realms of experimental archaeology to find out what processes were involved in the occupations of an ancestor. If we know they walked a certain route to school, to work, or to migrate, then can we walk it too (if only virtually with the aid of Google Earth)? What was the terrain like? What marks on the natural or built landscape may they have passed?

Family History is not just about following shaky leaves {and believe me, ‘shaky’ is an appropriate description for many} and amassing the largest family tree in the world. It is about getting under the skin of those we have discovered and doing the best we can to gain an insight into their ways of life. {Oooh, opportunity for another advertisement – if you would like to add depth to the deaths of your ancestors, join me on my Pharos Tutors online course ‘In Sickness and in Death: researching the ill-health and deaths of our ancestors’ – starts on Tuesday folks!}.

More Cornish Wanderings with Family History for Good Measure

I know it was a while ago now but I did have another day of holidaying to share. So just in case anyone is wondering why they have been left in limbo, or in our case in Cornwall, here is the final episode.

After an early morning look at Looe for another fishing boat fix for my travelling companion, we head to Cotehele. On the way we fit in another family history parish. Since I have been home, I have been trying to take these newly-found Cornish ancestors further. One just might be a ‘gateway’ ancestor, taking me back to Medieval times and potentially royalty but let’s not get ahead of myself. It holds together well back to 7x great-grandfather Richard Rowse/Roose/Ruse/Ruze but I need to convince myself that his potential father Walter (who does seem to be the only Walter around at that date, didn’t marry until he was in his forties. Further speculation needs to wait until I can get to the new Cornwall archives.

082 15 July 2019 CoteheleOur first task at Cothele is to hunt out our memorial tree in the fruit orchard. We think we know roughly where it is. We also think we know what variety it is but we fail to locate it. Once again we are hampered by the environmentally friendly attempt to let the orchard go wild. Tramping through long grass trying to find a variety label that has probably long since gone is not fun. Reception provide us with a guide, which suggests that we are looking for the wrong type of tree. I am still not sure that the tree we pay homage to is actually the one that Martha and I planted in 2008; we are both convinced it was a different variety, to the extent that I purchased one of the same type for my garden.

We tour Cothele house, which belonged to the Edgecumbe family. Most of the present building is Tudor but the interior is largely seventeenth century in style. It is one of my favourite National Trust properties and always seems very homely. Surprising then to discover that the family only lived there full time during Civil War. Somehow this had escaped me on previous visits. Not bad for a holiday home. They used it as a showcase for their various collectables. To this end, bizarrely, they have a china closet in the bedroom, presumably so guest can admire the cups and saucers at night. This showcasing lark is not always successful as various tapestries have had bits hacked off them in order to fit the rooms. We manage to miss being in the right place to hear the iconic clock strike twelve. We walk down to the quay before deciding that it really is too hot to be outside and returning to our van.

All in all, it was a gentle sort of holiday and because we are not far from home and have been many times before and hopefully can again, there was no pressure to rush round places thinking this will be our only opportunity. Nothing beats glorious landscapes, the sea, sunshine and the chance to immerse yourself in heritage, both personal and more general.

Are your Ancestors Dead? – a family history post

One thing that all but our most recent ancestors have in common is that they are dead. Particularly when we first start out on our genealogical journey, we all have those ancestors hanging from our family tree who are 327 and we have not yet killed them off, in the nicest possible way. The temptation is to focus on births/baptisms and marriages, as they are more likely to progress our tree but it is vital to seek out deaths/burials as well. It is not unusual to find people constructing a tree based on someone who died at the age of two, so could not possibly have married great-granny. It is not just about when they died though; what about the how and the why. Do you know how your ancestors died, or what conditions were prevalent at the time of their deaths, or how their occupation might have impacted on their health? Do you know your byssinosis from your convulsive ergotism and which ancestor would be more likely to suffer from which?

The health problems and deaths of our ancestors are an integral part of our family’s history. Sickness was a very real fear for those who lived in past centuries, diagnosis was not straightforward and cures and preventatives could be ‘unusual’ at best and useless at worst. Illness and disease was such a fundamental part of our ancestors’ lives that we owe it to them to investigate this aspect further, if we want those ancestors to be more than just a two-dimensional name on a page. I do have a particular interest in this topic and several of my presentations cover aspects of the history of medicine. A number of you will have heard tales of my ancestors who habitually fell off (or into) things.

This is the time of year when I revisit this topic, as I am about to present my five-week online course for Pharos Teaching and Tutoring In Sickness and in Death researching the ill-health and death of your ancestors. If you think this post is some kind of convoluted advertisement, you’d be right but it is also because I feel that this is a very important but often neglected, topic. The course will help you to set your ancestors’ lives in context by looking at the illnesses, disabilities and diseases that brought about their deaths or had an effect on their well-being. It covers a variety of records that might provide information about ill-health, or causes of death for specific ancestors, or about prevalent threats to health in the past. The causes, symptoms and treatment of various illnesses are investigated in all their gory and fascinating detail and significant medical developments of the last 400 years are explored. If any of my writer friends have persevered this far, it could be great for historical novelists too. The first lesson begins on 13 August, so if you do want to fill one of the remaining spaces, don’t delay. It can all be done in your own time, from the comfort of your own keyboard, so there are no excuses. The only part that is time-prescribed is the weekly online ‘chat’. I should add that no webcams are used in this process, all you need to do is to type your comments, so you are free to join in wearing your pyjamas. The sources that are referred to are from English records, as they are what I have access to but the principals apply world-wide and you are encouraged to relate what you have learned to your own ancestors.

Advert over – normal service will resume shortly and yes, I know I have left you hanging in Cornwall – one more post to get us home soon, I promise.

Bill of Mortality