Not actually a Family History Advent Calendar Part 6 Christmas Puzzling and Maps

For most of us, Christmas is a time for traditions, old and new. We recall past Christmases and family occasions. Sadly, there are those for whom this time of year is a challenge; memories are not always happy ones. We blithely wish others ‘Happy Christmas’ or ‘Happy Holidays’ [insert your preferred greeting of choice] but it is often far from happy. So, whilst as a family historian I would encourage you to share and make memories, I know that might not be easy for everyone. It is important to preserve the past, however unpalatable that past might have been but memories should only be dredged up if the process contributes to your own well-being. If slavishly adhering to family traditions or expectations is toxic for you, then ignore them, throw them out and start anew.

I am fortunate that I have wonderful Christmas memories and I enjoy the various traditions that have developed over the years. Some date from my childhood, others are of more recent standing. The past few years has seen the incorporation of Gordon Gray’s fiendish, charity Christmas Puzzle into our family’s seasonal repertoire. Do take a look if you are fans of this sort of thing. My first attempt suggests that I might do slightly better this year than on previous occasions but it is early days!

So what do I have as today’s advent favourite website offering? I give you G is for Gough Map. Probably dating from the 1370s, the Gough Map is the oldest known map of Britain. Its website allows searches by modern and Medieval place name. I know that very few people have traced their families back to Medieval times, I certainly haven’t but this is still a fascinating website – great for one-place studies too.


Not actually a Family History Advent Calendar Part 5 Page 69 and the Ecclesiastical Census

Nothing Christmassy to report today but a number of my writer friends are publishing page 69 of their novels and commenting whether they think it is typical of the book as a whole. So here is Barefoot page 69 for those who havent read it. Maybe those who have can decide if it is typical – it is probably cheerier than some parts! If you do want a paperback copy, I am on a mission to dispose of a least one more box before Christmas, so please contact me (post free in the UK). The pile behind the settee is currently distressingly uneven! Of course if you are a e-reader person you will need to go to the large online retailer I’m afraid. All the links on on the Barefoot on the Cobbles page.

Barefoot on the Cobbles page 69

Polly was always careful that they had sufficient money ready for rent day. Albert trusted her to ensure that they did not get in to debt, not an easy task when a fisherman’s income was so uncertain. He knew that she remembered Mrs Powell’s anguish and fretted when their savings ran low. The carefully harvested shillings in the brown jug were their nest-egg, something to fall back on in hard times.

‘’Twill not be for long Pol,’ he assured her. ‘The fishin’s been good of late, so I’ll soon earn enough to pay it back.’

Polly cut a thick, uneven slice from the loaf that she held close to her waist. She wielded the knife in a sideways motion, sawing the sharp blade back and forth towards her own body but Albert was not alarmed, this was her normal habit. She smeared a generous dab of dripping across the rough surface and handed it to her husband with a smile, thankful that Alb was such a good provider. She had chosen well.

By the time the message came to say that the boat was ready, Polly was able to give her husband a pile of florins and half crowns to take to Appledore. Albert left early to walk the fourteen miles to the ship-builders’ yard. Strapped to his back was a pair of oars, he would need those for the return journey. Polly’s father had worked for Philip Waters for years, this would be a sturdy boat that would suffice for as long as Albert was able to put out to sea. He had years left to him yet, his grandfather had hauled pots until he was in his eighties and was still hand lining until his death, a few years ago.

Book and Clovelly.JPG

And todays advent favourite family history website entry (actually it is three websites, so a bonus!) E is for Ecclesiastical Census.

In Britain, in 1851, an ecclesiastical census accompanied the regular census. A series of questions were sent to the leaders of all congregations, of whatever denomination. The returns describe, for each place of worship, the location, date of erection or foundation, the name of the minister and the size of the congregation on 30th March 1851. The originals are at The National Archives in Class HO129, arranged by county and Poor Law Union. These are available as free digital downloads. The Scottish returns are at the National Archives for Scotland. The returns have been published for some counties. For background, see here. The full report can also be downloaded. Some of those filling in the entries included fascinating comments, often excuses as to why attendance was lower than usual. Strangely, no one seemed to claim that they had more worshippers than average on 31 March!

Here is the entry for South Molton Chapel:

Independent Chapel, South Molton, Devon. Built about 1600, re erected and enlarged 1833 200 free sittings, 310 other sittings and standing room for 40. 258 attended on the morning of 30th March 1851 with 52 in the Sunday School. In the evening 200 attended. Comment –  ‘the afternoon is devoted to teaching in the Sabbath School when the number of children is much greater than in the morning, as many of the attendants live in the country and are seldom present in the evening.’ ’

Many of the entries in this year’s advent calendar are based on my book Family Historian’s Enquire Within. I would be very grateful if anyone in the UK wanting to buy a copy would get in touch with me directly (there will be no charge for UK postage). I am trying to free up book storage space ready for novel two arriving!


Not actually a Family History Advent Calendar Part 4 – Bringing the ancestors to the Christmas party and a bit about clergymen

Last year I was given the task of ordering battery lights for the History Group’s entry in the village Christmas tree competition. This was an abject fail as the string that arrived was about 5cm long but that’s another story. In the magical ‘big brother’ way that is a feature of Facebook algorithms, up popped an advert for a string of lights where each light was also a peg. I had a light bulb moment (no pun intended). These pegs are meant for displaying Christmas cards. All I can say is that the cards would need to be teeny tiny as the pegs are quite close together but I did not want them for cards. I am very fortunate to have an extensive photograph album for my mother’s side of the family. Add to this, the few photographs I have for my father’s family and my daughters’ paternal ancestors and I amassed a cast of eighty. Given my paucity of cousins, I was quite impressed by this.

The pictures span 9 generations, from someone born in 1778 (who lived to be over 90) to someone born in 2013. I printed them out 2-3cm wide/deep and then laminated them. Hint if you are going to try this – leave at least a centimetre of blank laminate above each picture, otherwise the pictures are covered by a peg. I have a duplicate set of pictures for small visitors to play with should they want to. If you are going to do this, you might want to round the corners, as cut up bits of laminate can be quite sharp. One or two recalcitrant cousins do have a habit of twisting round to face the wrong way but that is the way of Christmas ornaments! I also have to remember to set the lights to constant not an annoying flicker (of which there are seven varieties) but I am pleased that I now have eighty family members joining me for Christmas. It is really difficult to photograph the effect successfully, as to get the full impression the pictures are too small to see but this will give you an idea.



Now for today’s alphabetical favourite family history website. C is for Church of England Clergy Database. This site provides biographical data on clergymen, taken form various archives in England and Wales, for the period 1540-1835. For those doing one-place studies, it is possible to use the advanced search to search by place. You may not have clergymen in your own family but it is great fun to learn more about who baptised, married or buried your ancestors. For example, I can tell you who the local curate was in 1620. This was probably just a few years after my house was built.

‘Philip Boteler, ordained deacon 5 Feb 1617 by William Cotton, Bishop of Exeter. 1 Aug 1620 became curate of Buckland Brewer, Bulkworthy, East Putford and West Putford. Went on to be rector of Landcross 5 June 1641’


Many of the entries in this year’s advent calendar are based on my book Family Historian’s Enquire Within. I would be very grateful if anyone in the UK wanting to buy a copy would get in touch with me directly (there will be no charge for UK postage). I am trying to free up book storage space ready for novel two arriving!

Not actually a Family History Advent Calendar Part 3

Time is short, hence no post yesterday. Oh, she will have been working away at those three writing projects she mentioned’, I hear you say. Err, well, maybe just a little. I’ve actually been wasting spending time re-assessing a longstanding (over 40 years) family history brick wall but I should really be doing other things. For those who remember the story of Mary Cardell, some progress has been made (of the three steps forward, two steps back variety) but a DNA match supports my latest hypothesis. Inevitably, said match has not responded to my message but heigh ho. To cut a long and sorry story short, I am now pretty sure that Mary had an older sister, all I have to do is confirm it and I have pretty much run out of options for this. I do need a marriage record from Worcester Archives, so if any of my readers are planning a visit ………. Watch this space for the story so far but don’t hold your breath!

Before my alphabetical website entry, a gratuitous photograph of my Christmas tree – because I can!


C is for Caribbean

All right-thinking people now view slavery as a truly appalling episode in our history but we cannot judge our ancestors by modern standards. It is also important not to air-brush out unsavoury aspects of our family’s past.

The Legacies of British Slave Ownership project have created a website and database that not only enables us to search for slave-owning ancestors but there are also maps, documents and background information available. It provides a portrait of British Slave-ownership in the Caribbean at the time slavery ended, in 1833. Some of the entries are brief, others are full of genealogical detail. Here is a particularly informative example:

‘Margaret Dunbar ye Base child of Mary Blake Born June ye 22nd was Baptized Nov 8th [1761]. By 1784 Margaret was the housekeeper of James Tierney in Kingston and pregnant with his child. James Tierney was a barrister, brother of George Tierney MP and brother-in-law of Abram Robarts MP. In his will he left Margaret £1000 and ‘all my household furniture and utensils, pictures, plate, china, linen and carriages and any one of my horses which she may choose for herself. James died in 1784 and his daughter Sabina Eleanor Tierney (q.v.) was born 15/12/1784. In Sabina’s baptism record, her mother Margaret Dunbar was recorded as ‘a free Quadroon woman’.

By 1787 Margaret had begun a longer-term relationship with Ebenezer Robertson. Their first child, Margaret, was born 13/01/1788 followed by a son, Francis William, 02/05/1789 and another daughter Mary Ann, 09/07/1790. An Act of Assembly, 10/12/1790 conferred, with certain restrictions, the privileges of whites upon the reputed kin of Nicholas Blake, deceased, planter, St Elizabeth, including Mary Blake and her descendants, who include Margaret Dunbar and her four oldest children: ‘Mary Blake of the Parish of Kingston a free mulatto woman and James Blake and John Blake free mulatto men, the reputed children of Nicholas Blake decd; late of the parish of St Elizabeth, Margaret Dunbar a free quadroon, daughter of the said Mary Blake and Sabena Eleanor Tierney, Margaret Robertson, Francis William Robertson and Mary Anne Robertson the infant children of the said Margaret Dunbar to all rights and privileges under certain restrictions.’

Many of the entries in this year’s advent calendar are based on my book Family Historian’s Enquire Within. I would be very grateful if anyone in the UK wanting to buy a copy would get in touch with me directly (there will be no charge for UK postage). I am trying to free up book storage space ready for novel two arriving!

Not actually a Family History Advent Calendar Part 2

So today has been Christmas cake-making day mark two. I was going to be restrained and only make one but when I learned that the descendants would be descending I thought a second would be in order. I don’t do cooking. The only exceptions are Christmas cake, Christmas pudding and chutney. Christmas cake making (something I’ve been doing for forty years) has a ritual of its own and this extends to the utensils that have to be used. Firstly, the mixing bowl. You can still buy bowls like this but this one was I believe a wedding present for my parents in 1947. The eggs are always cracked into a glass Snoopy mug (late 1970’s vintage), using a bone handled knife that was also a parental wedding gift. The flour is always scooped out using a plastic mug that was mine when I was a toddler. The recipe is always the same, although this year I used gluten free flour for the first time. I always add extra mixed peel. I used ground almonds instead of whole ones. There was a year when I couldn’t get ground almonds and we tried doing things to whole ones in a blender – not the greatest success! In the days when I had assistants, strict turns were taken with adding the ingredients. It still feels odd making the cakes by myself but it is part of Christmas, just like the tree.


My Family History website offering for today is another London-centric one, apologies for that but I am attempting to be vaguely alphabetical. So do take a look at Booth’s Survey of London. Charles Booth was an influential social reformer and his extensive surveys of Life and Labour in London, undertaken between 1886 and 1903, created a mass of source material that can be very useful for those who have London ancestors. Even if your own family did not live in London, the conditions he described would be equally applicable to large towns and cities elsewhere. His survey investigated working conditions, poverty, migration, leisure and religion. He created a series of colour coded maps, which indicated the social class of each street. These ranged from ‘upper class’ to ‘lowest class, semi-criminal’. These maps are available online and can be searched and freely downloaded. The maps were based on his findings, which were recorded in 450 notebooks that are in the custody of the London School of Economics. Some of the notebooks are viewable on the website; consulting the remainder requires a visit to the London School of Economics’ Library. The notebooks can be searched by keyword, enabling references to particular streets to be identified.

My own ancestors owned a grocer’s and tea dealer’s shop on Kingsland Road, Hackney in the second half of the nineteenth century. From Booth’s maps I can see that it was identified as ‘middle class, well-to-do’ (makes a change for my ancestors). The notebooks tell me that ‘Kingsland Road is a first rate market street in the shopping place of the neighbourhood.’ ‘Saturday is the great marketing night’.


From Booth’s Poverty Map


Not actually a Family History Advent Calendar Part 1

It is beginning to look a lot like …… Decorations are up! I have been putting some of these ornaments on my trees for over fifty years and my mother for more than twenty years before that! Christmas is all about recalling old memories and making new ones; it is about family past and present. I’ll be sharing some family bits and pieces over coming weeks. For more about family associations and my Christmas tree, see my post from 2013.


Some of my Christmas Tree Ornaments that date from the 1940s

As regular readers are aware, during December, I often blog an advent calendar, with twenty four vaguely history themed posts. I had decided that this year my writing time should be devoted to novel number two, which I really need to finish by the end of March, ready for a late August launch. Added to this, I have been invited to undertake three other writing projects, which I suspect will have tightish deadlines, so another reason for blog posting to take a back seat. It seems, however that my fans (believe me there is a least one) have been eagerly awaiting this year’s offering. Well, I can’t promise twenty four entries (especially as I have already missed two days) but I thought I would share some favourite family/local history websites during December. If you are feeling the advent calendar withdrawal symptoms then you can always re-read these from previous years.

2012 History of Christmas A to Z starts here

2016 Historical Novelists starts here

2017 Social History Books starts here

2018 Barefoot on the Cobbles Sources starts here

For this year though, here is the first of my family history sources, in roughly alphabetical order.

B is for Bomb Sight This site makes public maps of World War II bomb damage in London. There are maps of all incendiary devices that fell on London between 7 October 1941 and 6 June 1941. You can search by street and many incidents are accompanied by photographs or memories. See also The National Archives research guide to the Bomb Census Survey 1940-1945 that can be down loaded from their website.


Many of the entries in this years advent calendar are based on my book Family Historian’s Enquire Within. I would be very grateful if anyone in the UK wanting to buy a copy would get in touch with me directly (there will be no charge for UK postage). I am trying to free up book storage space ready for novel two arriving!


Researching our Twentieth Century 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 another post that I wrote for the magazine, which I have edited to bring it up to date.

As genealogists, we often shy away from researching our twentieth century ancestors, treating them differently from earlier generations. When we begin our quest to uncover our family’s story, the inclination is to rush backwards as far as possible, as fast as possible. Often, our knowledge reaches back to the early years of the twentieth century without us having to do any documentary research. Here are people we have known and whose personal reminiscences, memorabilia and vital records may well be in our possession, or held by close family. For some of us, there is the tendency to view the twentieth century as ‘not really history’; after all we may well have lived through half of it. Our starting point may well be a granny or great granddad who was born in 1895. Family historians will often, justifiably, comment that it is easier to research in the nineteenth century than it is the twentieth. Records that are closed to public view, families that are increasingly mobile and just sheer numbers of people, all add to the difficulties of more recent research. This means we sometimes gloss over the recent members of our family tree, relying on what the family can tell us and instead we immerse ourselves in the stories of our earlier ancestors.

If you have never really focused on your more recent relatives, I would like to encourage you to do so. This is not just about a family tree, it is about recreating your family’s lives. There is so much context that can be incorporated in to stories of ancestors who were alive between 1900 and 1950: two World Wars, the changing role of women, the Great Depression, to name but a few. If you have an English family you might add the General Strike, in Ireland the fight for Home Rule. I had great fun researching this era for my novel Barefoot on the Cobbles. This period may see your family owning a car, a camera or a radio for the first time. Can you find out what they might have seen at the cinema, listened to on the phonograph or played with as children? Fashions, communications, travel and social welfare all changed immeasurably between 1900 and 1950; how would this have affected your family?

More recent research has become more important now that our quest for DNA matches encourages us to take our trees downwards, in an attempt to identify potential 3rd and 4th cousins.

Taking time out from your quest for earlier generations, to concentrate on those from this period, can bring great benefits. Just selecting a few decades really focuses the mind and you will probably be surprised how much you can find out about these relatives, their homes and localities and the lives they may have led. There is much to help you tell that story. You may well have photographs of this period. Even if you do not have photographs of your own ancestors, there are others available to evoke the era. There will be newspaper reports that again might not name your own relatives but will tell you what was going on in their communities. Would granny have attended the church bazaar? Did granddad win the ploughing match? Would your family have been affected by the closure of a major local business? It is much more likely that you will have precise addresses for twentieth century ancestors and it is also more likely that those homes are still standing. This opens up opportunities to include photographs of those homes in your stories.

This is also a fascinating period for those with One Place Studies to focus on – get ready for the release of the 1921 census by focusing on the other documentation now!


For those of you with British ancestors in this period, if you feel that this is a project that you might like to try and you would welcome further guidance, the next presentation of my five week online course Discovering your British Family and Community in the Early Twentieth Century, run by Pharos Tutoring and Teaching starts in January.

Barefoot on the Cobbles – true story based in Devon 1890-1919. Available on Kindle. Unless you are outside the UK, please buy paperbacks from me (trying to make room for Christmas tree) – postage free to UK addresses. Gift giving season approaching etc.. Also available Remember Then: women’s memories of 1946-1969 and how to write your own. Ditto that think about buying from me. What else can I say, oh talks available on both books on request. Phew, that’s today’s marketing done.

And just because I can, photos of a few of my ancestors who made it into the C20th. P.S I don’t seem to have inherited the ears!

003 Eliza Smith nee Seear 1823-1900.JPGMary Archer Dawson née Bowyer 1830-1919.jpg

Philip James Woolgar 1855-1913 c 1899.jpg