Thursday, 20 December 2012

'Pay-day' loans are nothing new

'The Accommodation Bill' 1864
As long as people have been short of money, there have been ways of borrowing it. And in general, the more desperate a person was for the money, the higher would be the cost to them of borrowing even quite small sums. That hasn't changed either. Many of us have heard of pawn shops, even if we have no experience of using them, and they feature quite a lot in literature. The plots of a number of Charles Dickens' stories revolve around debt, much of it based on his own experience - his father, John Dickens, was notoriously improvident, and Mr Micawber in David Copperfield is said to have been based on him. Mr Pickwick and Mr Dorritt even find themselves imprisoned for debt, and Dickens is by no means the only Victorian writer who returns to this theme over again.

Some of us have even found records of ancestors' appearances in the bankruptcy courts, or at least a notice in the London Gazette. While doing some research on the General Register Office I found a number of references to clerks who got into difficulties with money, particularly in the 1840s and 1850s. In 1847 the Registrar General, George Graham, wrote 'I daily find great inconvenience from the irregular attendance of clerks involved in pecuniary difficulties'. In some of the cases described the men are said to have been involved in 'bill transactions' and in 1855 one of the clerks, George Voules, was engaged in 'usurious dealings as a money-lender and bill discounter'. It is plain from the context that some of these men were not only in difficulties themselves but brought others down with them by means of 'bill transactions' or 'bill discounting'. I was intrigued, but I had no idea what these transactions involved, and none of the reference books I consulted was of any help.

I found the answer in an unexpected place, and like many of the best discoveries, I made it while I was looking for something else. Or, to be more accurate, I was at a book fair, indulging my weakness for second-hand books when I came across 'Commercial Tales and Sketches', one of those improving pieces of Victorian literature produced by religious organisations. This anonymous volume was published in 1864 from the Leisure Hour Office - the Leisure Hour was a 'family magazine for Sabbath reading'. The very first of the book's cautionary tales was called 'The Accommodation Bill' and described in detail how a young man took out a costly short-term loan which he could not repay, and then fell into an increasing spiral of debt until, in desperation, he embezzled money from his employers, was convicted of fraud and transported for his crime.

The scene above shows the young man, Wilson, and his friend Maxwell in a coffee-room where he is about to to take the fateful step of signing the Accommodation Bill.

'You will be able to meet this when the time comes round; and if not, we will get it renewed, that's all. the thing is done every day. It is for your good, you know. I shall get nothing by it, only the risk'   
Wilson faintly expressed thanks to his friend, who proceeded glibly with his pen to draw upon Wilson for the sum of twenty-five pounds 'Value Received' a bill at three months.
'Now just accept it, and it is done' 
'All but turning it into money,' replied Wilson, with an attempt to smile, as he wrote across the face of the bill. 
'That will soon be done. Wait here half an hour, and I will be with you by that time,' said Maxwell, putting the acceptance in his pocket-book, and leaving the table. In another minute Wilson was alone, his head buried in his hands...At length his companion returned. 
'It's all right,' said Maxwell, seating himself; 'and here is the needful.' 
He laid the money before his friend . It was considerably short of twenty-five pounds. Wilson counted it with a nervous hand, and recounted it. 'This is a heavy discount,' he said. 
'It is the best I could do for you, my dear fellow; those discounters will make us pay for it. I have known fifty, sixty and even seventy per cent taken for discount. This is only twenty-five; so you may think yourself well off.'...Wilson knew this, and in a more cheerful tone he thanked his friend for the assistance he had given.
So Wilson had agreed to repay £25 in three months time, but but had only received three-quarters of that amount, the 25% 'discount' effectively being the interest. Maxwell was acting as guarantor for Wilson's debt, on the understanding that Wilson would do the same for him one day. The story continues with Wilson's debt coming to the attention of his employers, since these accommodation bills could be traded by the original lenders, in the way that debts can still be bought and sold today. Inevitably, some borrowers would have been unable to make the payment on the due day, and so take sign another bill, often at even less favourable terms. Some may have realised that this would be a way to make easy money for themselves, once they were solvent again, and this may be what Mr Voules had been doing. One of his victims was another GRO clerk, William Owen, who was imprisoned for debt, but seems to have been allowed to return to his job later. For the record, Voules was 'allowed to resign' in 1855 and died two years later.


Thursday, 6 December 2012

Goodbye Desperate Dan, happy birthday British Newspaper Archive

Statue of Desperate Dan in Dundee city centre.
Within the last few days the last print issue of the Dandy comic rolled off the presses, and the British Newspaper Archive marked its first birthday by adding the six millionth page to its site. The two events are not unconnected.

The Dandy and its companion the Beano hold a very special place in the affections of many Brits. These two  comics were part of our childhood (and adulthood too, come to that!). The Dandy was first published in 1937, and the Beano (which continues as a weekly print title) dates from 1938, both published by D C Thompson. This is a long-established Dundee firm that also happens to be the parent company of brightsolid who are responsible for a number of websites familiar to genealogists including...the British Newspaper Archive.

So in the space of a single week I have found myself looking back fondly at the Dandy and Beano of the past, and looking forward expectantly to the appearance of even more online newspaper resources, both courtesy of the folks in Dundee.

I know you can't believe everything you read in the papers, and you never could, but they still provide tremendously useful source material for local and family historians. You might find an item in a newspaper that leads you to follow up a story in official sources, but that you would never have thought of looking for otherwise. I have followed the progress of the British Newspaper Archive with interest, ever since I heard brightsolid's Chris van der Kuyl at Rootstech 2011, describing how the project would unfold. In November of that year the site was open for beta testing, and shortly after that it was launched for real.

As well as passing the 6 million page mark, the BNA also marked its first birthday by making its contents available to holders of British and World subscriptions to While this is a great addition to Findmypast, I won't be giving up my separate subscription to the newspaper site, because it allows for much more refined searching and browsing, and a few other goodies that I think are worth paying for. All the same, some kind of discount for holders of subs to both sites would be much appreciated (hint, hint).


Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Something about voting...

Judging from my blog statistics, about half of my followers might have had just about enough of voting in the here and now. But we genealogists are interested in the records left by ancestors when they voted too - assuming that they could vote of course, which most of them couldn't.

If they could vote you might find them listed in an electoral register or a poll book, Electoral registers are official lists of people eligible to vote, and they were required to be produced annually following the Reform Act of 1832. Poll books could be very different. They were independently published and were only produced where a publisher felt they would be commercially viable. But the main difference is that a poll book  tells you which candidate each person voted for. This came to an end in 1872, when the secret ballot was introduced.

Some poll books are very factual and neutral, recording only the bare facts, but others include detailed accounts of the election campaign, and can be highly partisan (and entertaining).

Some records are now online, but the great majority still have to be consulted in record offices and libraries. You can find local holdings by searching online catalogues like Access to Archives (A2A) for England and Wales or the Scottish Archive Network (SCAN) for Scotland. The Society of Genealogists library also holds a good selection of poll books. The British Library holds the largest single collection of electoral registers and poll books, and their comprehensive guide to the collection Parliamentary Constituencies and their registers since 1832 can now be downloaded from their website as a PDF file, all 371 pages of it!


Monday, 12 November 2012

Remember the civilian casualties

Like most people I have family members who were involved in the First and Second World Wars; my grandfather David Donaldson served in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, the Royal Naval Division and the Royal Navy in the First World War, and my other grandfather, Henry Collins, was in the Royal Artillery in the Second World War, most of the time as a prisoner. Both survived, but Grandpa Collins' own grandfather Thomas Cross was not so lucky. He was a merchant seaman whose ship had been commandeered by the Royal Navy during the First World War, and he was killed at sea in 1917, when he was in his in his 60s.

My family is from Glasgow (I have to go back to my great-grandparents' generation to find anyone who was born outside the city) which was heavily bombed during the Second World War. No-one in my family was killed, but they spent many a night in the communal air-raid shelters, and there were some near misses. My mother told me about a bomb that fell during the day while she was at school. They heard the explosion and could tell it was nearby, and as the children were assembled for safety in the school hall, in the centre of the building, she was able to see that her street, directly opposite the school, was untouched. Pupils from streets that weren't visible had an agonising wait for the all-clear before they could find out if their families were safe. My grandfather was a driller in one of the shipyards, and raced home as soon as he could when he heard a bomb had fallen near his home. In the event, the bomb fell on a playing field and a sports pavilion was destroyed, and there were no casualties.

Just a few miles away in Clydebank, just outside Glasgow, another working man was not so lucky. Patrick Rocks was working a night shift in one of the many factories there on the first night of the Clydebank blitz, 13 March 1941, and returned home the next morning to find that his wife, his daughter, six sons, daughter-in-law and five young children had all been killed when a bomb hit their home at 78 Jellicoe Street. Their names, along with many other civilians killed in Second World War bombing raids, were recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

London was of course a prime target for German bombs, and although children had been evacuated from the capital to the countryside, a number of them drifted back, against all official advice. One of them was Charles Ellis, a pupil at Loughborough Central School in Brixton, South London. The school had been evacuated to Langton Matravers, near Swanage in Dorset, and despite the upheaval had managed to produce a school magazine, with articles and drawings by the children. Charles drew this picture of St Mary's Church, Swanage for the magazine which appeared in 1940, but by the spring of the following year he had returned to his home in Loughborough Road. On the night of 17 April 1941 he and his parents were killed in a bombing raid.


Thursday, 25 October 2012

'Welcome to GOV.UK...simpler, clearer, faster' allegedly

OK, it's not GOV.UK's fault that I had finished checking a number of links to the old site on Tuesday last week, and then GOV.UK went live on Wednesday, so I have to do them all again.   This is part of a periodic review of online guides that I have to do as part of the day job - if only I'd left it to the last minute as usual I'd only have had to do it once!

Since this is the official government site for information on birth, marriage and death registration I thought it would be worth looking at in a little more detail. I was not a great fan of way this information was presented on the old site (which you can still see on the Government Web Archive). This wasn't entirely due to the over-use of orange on its pages, but it certainly didn't help. The new site is at least a bit easier on the eye, with good-sized print and a decent amount of white space. The home page has a link 'Births, marriages, deaths and care - Includes civil partnerships and Lasting Power of Attorney' which leads to a page entitled 'Certification, register offices, changes of name or gender' consisting of a list of links, 5 of which are of interest to family historians.

The first link, Order a copy of a birth, marriage or death certificate is actually rather good, since it gives you essential information up front before directing you to the GRO online ordering system. It also includes other ways to apply if you don't want to do it online, and links to the General Register Offices in Scotland (GROS) and Northern Ireland (GRONI).

Unfortunately, the second link Register offices is very poor. It is subtitled 'Find a register office (registry office) - records of births, marriages, civil partnerships and deaths - you can register these or order certificates' but all it will allow you to do is search by postcode, and only a full postcode at that. I tested this by entering my own postcode, and then the postcode of my last address. They each returned a number of results, starting with the nearest. For my current address this is the Buckinghamshire Register Office in Aylesbury, which is the correct one for my address, although the weblink didn't work. For my last address it listed the offices in Harrow, Barnet and Brent, in that order. The correct one is actually Brent Register Office, and although the Harrow one appears to be nearer, this is because GOV.UK has the wrong postcode for Harrow Civic Centre, so the automated links on Google Maps, Bing Maps and Open Street Map all go to the wrong place. They seem to have used some sort of 'branch locator' software package, the kind of thing you might use to find your nearest Starbucks, but which is completely inappropriate for this purpose. The small print also asks you to 'enter a UK postcode', so naturally I couldn't resist putting in Scottish and Northern Irish ones, which directed me to Carlisle and Anglesey, respectively!

Much further down the page are links to contact details for the GRO and the National Records of Scotland, but not for GRONI, although there is a link to its contact details from the GRO contacts page. For some reason the numerous Contacts pages throughout the site give postal addresses, phone numbers and email addresses or online contact forms, but not links to official websites or key landing pages within them.

The final link on this page looks the most promising - Research your family history using the General Register Office and this is an improvement on the old site where information was duplicated on a number of pages and the arrangement was not very logical. For some reason GRO references are referred to as 'index numbers' but at least the link to FreeBMD is prominent, and the list of the 7 places holding full sets of the indexes on microfiche is just below. This is good, but it doesn't make it clear that these are the only complete sets, or that they are on microfiche, it just says 'Finding index numbers in person - you can also search for index numbers for free at:'  and then lists them, but without addresses or weblinks, other than a link to the online registration page for a British Library Reader Pass. This is followed by a downloadable pdf document 'Where you can view the GRO index numbers in your area'. This is supplied by the Identity and Passport Service (IPS) the parent department of the GRO, and is actually called 'Public holders of the General Register Office indexes'. This is much more helpful, with full addresses and details of the actual indexes held, and their coverage dates. They even include holdings outside England and Wales. It also lists the sites other than FreeBMD where the indexes can be found, referred to only as 'commercial companies' on the main page. You can also download the GRO's own list of its holdings. There are contact details for the Principal Registry of the Family Division for divorce records, but only a postal address and phone number, although there is a much better page Get a copy of a decree absolute elsewhere on the site.

The final section is 'Further information' which suggests you consult local archives or The National Archives to help research your family history. This is good advice, and the link to The National Archives is OK, but the Local archives link is just as bad as the Register Offices one - very handy if you happen to know the full postcode of the house where your ancestor lived in 1851, I'm sure! A link to ARCHON would have been much better.

The best part of the 'Certification, register offices, changes of name or gender' page is right at the end, a link to a downloadable pdf of the GRO's 24-page booklet Discover your family history which is excellent.

I would like to have seen some information about wills and probate on this page, but although there is some information about wills and probate in the Death and bereavement section of Births, deaths, marriages and care, there is no link that I have been able to find to the informative  Guide to obtaining copies of probate records pages on the Justice site.

No doubt the site will be developed and, hopefully, improved over time - it only went live a week ago, after all. For one thing it needs to learn that England and Wales has register offices, not registry offices. Overall it's an improvement on, but those postcode searches really have to go!


Thursday, 20 September 2012

Scotland's People -the first decade

General Register House, home of the ScotlandsPeople Centre
This month sees the tenth birthday of the ScotlandsPeople site, dear to the heart of Scots genealogists, especially those of us who don't live in Scotland any more. I think it's worth looking back over the last 10 years (and beyond) to see how much has changed in such a relatively short time. I also used the phrase 'and beyond' because it may be the 10th birthday of the ScotlandsPeople site that we know now, but the General Register Ofice for Scotland (GROS) had many of its records online before then with Scots Origins. It was in 2002 that the contract was awarded to Scotland Online, now brightsolid, who have done a great job, but we should recognise the pioneering work done by Scots Origins. This developed into the wider British Origins site, and still provides some useful resources for Scottish research.

Back in 2002 you could see online images from the Statutory Registers (births, marriages and deaths) back to 1855, the census of 1891 and then the newly-released 1901 census. A lot more records are available now, but that was pretty impressive back then, bearing in mind that for England and Wales the only online digitised resource was the 1901 census. The remainder of the holdings of GROS were added over the next few years: the censuses of 1841 to 1881  (and 1911 when it was released last year), the Old Parish Registers (OPRs) before 1855, and every year another year's worth of births, marriages and deaths. This is an important difference between GROS and the GRO for England and Wales, which only deals with births, marriages and deaths, and the closely-related records of stillbirths and adoptions. The official announcement from GROS on 18 September 2002 read:
Todays provision of birth and death registration images online, together with the earlier release of 1891 and 1901 census data, is part of the GROS's major Digital Imaging the Genealogical Records of the people of Scotland (DIGROS) project. This project will include the digital imaging of all the records held by the GROS including all open census records, statutory registers of births, marriages and deaths and parish registers of the Church of Scotland - some of which date from the 16th century. The project is due to be completed by the end of 2003 and will result in a uniquely comprehensive online resource, confirming the GROS's position as a leader in access to genealogical records wich began with the establishment of the Scots Origins website in 1998.
The next step was a significant development, the addition of records not held by the GROS but by the National Archives of Scotland (NAS).  Although NAS occupied the adjacent building, the two organisations were quite separate at the time, although they jointly set up the ScotlandsPeople Centre, and have since been combined to form the National Records of Scotland (NRS). These currently comprise Roman Catholic parish registers, valuation rolls for 1915 and wills and testaments up to 1901, with more in the pipeline. These records which are now so easily accessible are a genealogical goldmine for anyone researching Scottish ancestry.

A Scots wedding 1884
But there is more to ScotlandsPeople than just the facility to search and view core genealogical records. In conjunction with the Court of the Lord Lyon there is also the collection of coats of arms 1692-1908. I have yet to find anyone in my family, or connected with it, for whom this has any relevance, but you never know what might turn up one day. And for people with more illustrious ancestry this collection can be very valuable. There are also some additional features available when searching that many users may be unaware of. For census records there is the facility to use a full census reference instead of searching by name - you will find this within 'Advanced search'. You may have such a reference from a citation, or have found it in one of the street indexes on the site. These are quite well hidden. You need to go to the 'Search the Records' tab, then click on Census Records in the drop-down menu and select a census year. This takes you to useful background information about that census, including a link to PDF files of street indexes. There isn't a street index for every district in every year, but large towns are usually covered (only Glasgow and Edinburgh in 1841, but increasing numbers for later years). Search results are returned as a list, but there is a button at the bottom of each results page that allows you to see them plotted on a map. This is particularly handy if your knowledge of Scottish geography is a little shaky!

I wonder what the next ten years will bring?


Saturday, 15 September 2012

Births, Marriage and Death Records: a guide for family historians

I promised/threatened some shameless self-promotion, and here it is. Our book, Birth, Marriage and Death Records is now on sale.

You can buy it in the shop here at The National Archives or order it online, using the link on the right.

That is all.


Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Busy September

Apart from the extra traffic that reappears on the roads with the start of a new school term, I like September. The weather is usually better than August (but it's nice to see the autumn and winter collections in the shops too, just in case). It's also the time when new family history classes start up, and when many societies re-start their talks programmes after a summer break.

I also have a book coming out at the end of the month (in my last blog post I did warn you of the shameless self-promotion to come). In fact is is a joint project with my good friend and former colleague, Dave Annal of Lifelines Research. His name comes before mine for a number of reasons; Annal comes before Collins in the alphabet; he is an established author; and he did more than his fair share of the work! It is called 'Birth, marriage and Death Records, a guide for family historians' to be published on 30 September. If you are really keen you can follow the link and pre-order it from the Pen & Sword Books site for the bargain price of £10.39.
Oddly enough, no-one has written a book on this subject before. There are plenty of books on individual topics, such as civil registration or baptism records, and chapters on births, marriages and deaths in general family history books. But while there are numerous books on the census, or wills and probate, no-one has ever put together a whole book exclusively on birth, marriage and death records. We only wish we could have made it twice the length, there is so much wonderful material out there.

But before the book comes out I have two important speaking engagements, both at the Society of Genealogists. The first is a half-day course on Tracing Scottish Ancestors at The National Archives on Saturday 22 September. This is based on a talk that I first delivered three years ago, but which has now been updated and extended. There's a lot of material, so I am looking forward to having a double-length session this time. There is a podcast of the original version that I gave onsite at The National Archives in 2009.

Somerset House, birthplace of civil registration in England and Wales, in the 1830s
On the following Saturday, 29 September, I am back at the Society to deliver the opening sessions at their day conference celebrating 175 Years of Civil Registration. Hats off to the Society of Genealogists for being (as far as I am aware) the only organisation to mark this very significant anniversary. It seems to have passed entirely unnoticed as far as the General Register Office is concerned; they made a big deal of the 150th anniversary in 1987 and even commissioned a book, the excellent 'People Count' by Muriel Nissel. Perhaps they are saving themselves for the bicentenary in 2037.

You can book for both the Scottish Ancestry and 175 Years of Civil Registration on the Society's Events Calendar page. Maybe I'll see you there?


Friday, 31 August 2012

Welcome new editions of old(ish) books

I'm not in the habit of plugging books (apart from my own, which comes out next month - you'll see some shameless self-promotion then!). But there are some books where a new edition is worth shouting about, and this is one of them. There is a lot of interest in Caribbean family history, but there is relatively little in print, compared to other areas of research. It's quite some time since the last edition of Guy Grannum's Tracing your Caribbean Ancestors appeared, and it has been out of print for a while too, so the new edition is particularly welcome. If you are interested in the subject, Guy's website Caribbean Roots is also worth a look.  

This book is a National Archives Guide, from Bloomsbury Publishing, I knew that publication was imminent, so I was pleased to see a few days ago that it had arrived in The National Archives bookshop - I could hardly miss it, it's Publication of the Month. This means that you can buy it at a bargain price, £11.99 instead of £16.99, if you follow the link above. Like a number of other new publications it is also available as a e-book, which you can buy direct from Bloomsbury.

I also noticed a new edition of another established title that first appeared 25 years ago, Bound for Australia by David Hawkings. Most of the records he mentions are held in The National Archives, and David Hawkings is extremely good at finding relevant ones. Since the first edition appeared in 1987 he has discovered a victualling list for the First Fleet among Treasury records, which he reproduces in full in Chapter 1 (TNA ref T 46/22). This edition has 8 more chapters than the original 1987 work, with 22 appendices, a bibliography and separate indexes of personal names, place names and ships.

Although the title and the cover illustration suggest that this is a book about convicts, the subtitle 'A guide to the records of transported convicts and early settlers' shows that its scope is wider than that. One of the items that caught my eye on flicking through the book was an extract from 'A List of Free Passengers on board the Convict Ship Merchantman at Swan River on the 15th February 1863' (TNA Ref: MT 32/5). Among the Wives and Families of Pensioner Guard , the conduct on board of Mrs McCourt is described:
'A violent and most unmanageable woman. She was reported to me by her husband for keeping company with single men on board and refusing to come to bed at 10pm.'
Oh dear. So it wasn't just convicts who caused trouble.

Bound for Australia is published by The History Press and is also available from The National Archives bookshop, and although it isn't Publication of Month, it too is on sale at a bargain price if you buy it online.


Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Mappy Monday - London institutions 1911

Leaving the workhouse 1883
As part of the day job, I have been looking at the census statistics for institutions such as workhouses, barracks, prisons and so on. As I looked though the tables of the 1911 Census Report, it struck me that several London institutions were not in London at all, but in the adjacent counties. Even withing London, some were outside the actual parishes to which they belonged. For example, the St George Hanover Square workhouse was in Fulham.

The reason for this is obvious, when you think about it. London was full. From the early 19th century, if a London parish needed to build a workhouse, or even bury its dead, there was no space in the centre of town, so they had to look for available land further afield. As London grew, and with it the demand for workhouses, hospitals and more, these institutions were built further and further afield.

I decided to plot the positions of the London institutions that were outside London altogether, using Google Maps and the results were rather interesting. I also colour-coded them, red for workhouses and homes, dark blue for schools, light blue for asylums and green for hospitals and convalescent homes. I also added some details about each one, including the number of staff and inmates. The locations are approximate, although I may be able to refine them as I find out more about each of them. Meanwhile, they give a reasonable indication of how far London habitually removed some of its poor and needy.

Furthest afield are sanatoria and convalescent homes, some of them is seaside resorts, but by far the greatest number of displaced Londoners were in asylums. Nowadays we would call them mental hospitals, but in 1911 terms like 'Lunatic Asylum' were considered perfectly acceptable; Several of them had more than 2000 inmates.

'London' in this case is the Administrative County of London, created with the formation of the London County Council in 1888. It comprised the Mettropolitan Boroughs of Battersea, Bermondsey, Bethnal Green, Camberwell, Chelsea, Deptford, Finsbury, Fulham, Greenwich, Hackney, Hammersmith, Hampstead, Holborn, Islington, Kensington, Lambeth, Lewisham, Paddington, Poplar, St Marylebone, St Pancras, Shoreditch, Southwark, Stepney, Stoke Newington, Wandsworth, Westminster Woolwich and the City of London.

This 1896 map gives some idea of the area covered, although it also includes parliamentary constituencies, which have slightly different boundaries - the main difference being that West Ham is not part of the London County Council area. 

So you may find that members of your family you have always considered to be Londoners are a long way from home on census night. Most, though not all, of these places were Poor Law institutions of some kind, so the place to look for more information and links is of course Peter Higginbotham's The Workhouse site. Many related records will be found at the London Metropolitan Archives, and some are even online at


Saturday, 25 August 2012

Shopping Saturday - Oetzmann & Co

Oetzmann & Co were described in the London Post Office Directory of 1894 as 'complete house furnishers, cabinet makers and upholsterers, British carpet and rug warehouse, importers of Turkey, Persian, Indian and every description of Oriental carpets and rugs' or, according to the 1908 London Telephone Directory 'Cmplt Ho Frnshrs' - and you thought Text-speak was new! Their bill-head, from which the illustration above was taken, claimed that the business was founded in 1848, and it was still in business nearly a century later. You can see a selection of their advertisements on the Grace's Guide site, and one of them is dated 1947.

The founder appears to have been John Robert Augustus Oetzmann, and the business was carried on by his sons after his death in 1886. His brother, Thomas, was a piano-maker, and he too founded a successful business. The family came from Ipswich, and although their surname is German, there is no-one of that name in any English census who was born outside England. It is worth remembering that for centuries East Anglia has had close trading links with the countries that are now Germany and the Netherlands. I thought it was worth including the bill-head from which the top picture was taken, because it includes a comprehensive list of all the goods and services they provided. 

The company advertised extensively in the press, and the example above dates from 1906, when they had evidently taken over another business, Norman & Stacey, or at least acquired their stock. The London Metropolitan Archives holds some records relating to the Oetzmanns, mainly to do with their properties in Hampstead Road. 


Friday, 24 August 2012

The War of 1812 - from the British side

Today is the anniversary of day the British Army marched into Washington DC and burned a lot of it, including the White House. The War of 1812 is an important milestone in American history, but doesn't f eature so prominently on this side of the Atlantic (sorry USA, but Britain was more concerned with the Napoleon, the enemy on the doorstep).

Proper historians in the USA, Canada and the UK have researched the events of 1812-1815 and written plenty of books about it. I can't compete with them, but a couple of weeks ago I gave a talk about some of the records of the war that can help genealogists. To be more precise, I was talking about records held in The National Archives, and there are lots of them, including plenty about the men who fought on the American side, not just the British.

The podcast of the talk was uploaded to the website earlier today - how's that for timing? I illustrated it with some documents, including the one below, the service of record of John Adams, an American from Philadelphia who served in the British Army.

From his physical description (on the second extract) it looks as though he was an African American. There are a few more of these, but most of the records relating to Americans are about the several thousand who were taken prisoner. Most of these are lists of names, some with more detail than others. This one is a list of American prisoners who were fever patients, taken from a Royal Navy surgeon's journal.

In a few cases you might find a detailed account of a poor American soldier or sailor who was not only unlucky enough to be captured, but was sick as well.

Many American genealogists are unaware of these records, but when they do see them they are pretty impressed. Better still, the names of the American prisoners from 1812 to 1815 are name-indexed, although unfortunately the index is not online. Oh well, maybe one day.


What did you do in the War, Grandpa?

David Donaldson 23 August 1895 - 14 March 1958

I never actually asked him because he died when I was four, but I have found out quite a bit, as it happens. Today would have been his birthday if he'd lived to a record-breaking age, so it's a good day to remember him.

The picture on the right is the grandpa I remember, although more cheerful - he always looked grumpy in pictures, I have no idea why. He always wore a collarless shirt and a waistcoat, and he always had a tiny little stub of a pencil in the pocket. I would say 'draw funny man' and he'd take out the pencil and draw little clown pictures for me.

He was born and died in Govan, and like many men there he worked in the Glasgow shipyards; when he married my grandmother in 1917 the marriage certificate showed his occupation - iron driller - and the ship that he was serving on, HMS Emperor of India. I had known that he was in the Royal Navy, but when I found his service record I was surprised to find that he seemed to have only joined the navy in August 1917. If I had looked closely I would have noticed that the marriage certificate, dated four months earlier, gave the name of his ship.

TNA Ref: ADM 188/1073/315
The answer was that he had been on board HMS Emperor of India since 1915, but as a member of the Royal Naval Division. His record on HMS Emperor of India was exemplary, but after he transferred to HMS Ramilles in January 1918 it was a different story. He was court-martialled for wilful disobedience of lawful commands, and an act to prejudice of good order and naval discipline. He then made things even worse by escaping from custody. Orders for his demobilisation were cancelled, and he was recaptured and imprisoned in June 1918. Fortunately for him, he never served the year's imprisonment with hard labour to which he originally been sentenced. In October 1918 his sentence was suspended and he was released to civilian life. He was not alone in his misbehaviour, his shipmate James Finlay, from Leith, was convicted of the same offences at the same time, and they escaped together. I haven't been able to discover any more about the actual incident so far, but I may get to the bottom of it one day. I do know that while he was locked up he read the Bible. He was never at all religious, but since it was the only reading material available he read it just to pass the time. He had a remarkable memory, and for the rest of his life he could quote extensively from it.  

TNA Ref: ADM 339/1
In fact, he signed up for the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve a few days before his 20th birthday in 1915.

TNA Ref: ADM 337/27/7
He was very keen on ships, that's for sure, whether building them or sailing on them. The family story goes that when he was having a row with my Granny during the Second World War he stormed out of the house saying that he was going to join the Navy again, and he'd be killed at sea and then she'd be sorry! The Navy didn't want him; as a skilled man he was much more valuable in the shipyard!

I don't have a photograph of him in uniform, but there a picture of him with my grandmother, probably taken around the time they married, although it is not a wedding photograph.

He was the fourth of thirteen children, and his three elder brothers were also of an age to serve in the First World War. I have found no trace of the two eldest brothers serving in any of the armed forces, but the third one, George, served in the Highland Light Infantry and was killed towards the end of the war, in August 1918.


Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Who do you think you are? - Samantha Womack's military ancestors

Military genealogy is not really my speciality, but I was intrigued by some of the details of Sam Womack's soldier ancestor. Alexander Cunningham Ryan's story was fascinating in itself, but it was an odd little detail that first caught my eye. Because he was in a Guards regiment, the record of his First World War is held at the Guards Museum, and not at The National Archives; so far, so good. Then it was revealed that he had served in the Highland Light Infantry before the war, so off she went to Glasgow to find out more, and was filmed there looking at a copy of his service in that regiment. I thought it was rather odd that they were looking at a black and white printout, when pre-First World War service records on FindMyPast were scanned in colour - nerdy, or what?

The next twist in the story was that he had transferred from the HLI to the Royal Garrison Artillery, but had not mentioned this when he joined the Scots Guards. Living up to my earlier post 'You know you're a genealogist when...' I was of course typing furiously on my laptop while watching the show. I found his Royal Garrison Artillery record on Findmypast easily enough, but there was no trace of his service in the HLI, which I had seen Sam Womack and her expert looking at on TV.

One of the perks of my day job is working in a room full of records specialists, so I asked William Spencer, our senior military specialist, for his advice. He suggested I look in the First World War service records on Ancestry, and, lo and behold, there it was. Or, to be more precise, they they were. In theory, a man's pre-First World War military service records should be found with his First World War records, even if he had left the army, and then re-enlisted at the outbreak of war in 1914. Since his service in the RGA was on Findmypast, and his First World War records were at the Guards Museum, it would not have occurred to me to look on Ancestry for any of his records. I found them in the database which is wrongly described by Ancestry as 'Pension records'. They are not pension records. They are the duplicate records collected by the War Office, from a variety of sources, to replace the First World War service records destroyed by fire during the Second World War. So the three records covering the whole of his military service are all in one place, and I now knew why the record they were looking at in Glasgow was in black and white, and not in colour (the First World War records on Ancestry are in black and white because they were scanned from microfilm; they were only ever released on microfilm because of the fragile state of many of the originals)

Incidentally the nice man in Glasgow rather undermined his 'expert' credentials by suggesting that the wonderful photograph of 'J Ryan' aged about 15, in HLI uniform might be Alexander's younger brother, on the grounds of having the same surname and serving in the same battallion. There's nothing wrong with speculating, and he conceded that he had no evidence, but if he had looked at the third page of the record he was holding he would have seen the names of Alexander's three brothers - Michael, Peter and William.

Duplicate copy of Alexander' attestation for the Highland Light Infantry in 1895, aged 14

Alexander's attestation for the Royal Garrison Artillery in 1903, aged 22

Duplicate of Alexander's attestation for the Scots Guards in 1914, aged 33

But I was still interested in possible family connections, since Alexander's records all showed that he was born in Maryhill, and Maryhill Barracks is the home of the Highland Light Infantry, so I wondered if his father might also have been a soldier. Throwing caution to the winds, I used a few of my ScotlandsPeople credits to look at his birth entry, and, sure enough, his father was John William Ryan, sergeant in the 74th Regiment of Foot - ie the Highland Light Infantry. Better still, since he was born in 1881, I was able to find him with his parents in the 1881 census. By this time my profligacy with ScotlandsPeople credits knew no bounds, and I lashed out a few more on the marriage of John William Ryan and Jane Mitchell in 1880. This showed that John William's father, William Ryan, was also a soldier, not in the HLI but in the 33rd or First Yorkshire West Riding Regiment.

The 1881 census showed that John William was born in about 1850 in Sunderland, again obligingly close to a census, and the family were found in barracks in 1851. I was not at all surprised to find that William Ryan was born in Ireland, given his surname and the large number of Irishmen in the British Army at that time. There is no service record for him on Findmypast, and I couldn't find the family in the 1861 or 1871 census in England or Scotland. So I consulted the very useful 1861 Worldwide Army Index, also on Findmypast. This confirmed what I had suspected, that William's regiment was overseas, in India to be exact (TNA Ref: WO 12/4849, Muster book and paylist, 1st Battalion 33rd Regiment of Foot, 1 January 1861-31 December 1862).

Most families, celebrity or otherwise, have more potential leads than can be followed up in a single episode of Who do You think you are? So I have no complaints that this area wasn't explored, since the story that was told was also interesting. I'm not sure why I took such an interest in this one, since military research isn't usually my thing. Maybe it's because I had an uncle in the Scots Guards, another in the Highland Light Infantry, and one of my grandfathers served in the Royal Artillery.


Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Home Guard records released - More 'Lad's Army' than 'Dad's Army'

Home Guard service records for County Durham 1939-1945 have just been released online by The National Archives. According to the press release, a majority of the men who served were much younger than is popularly thought:
'The defence volunteers organisation the Home Guard was commonly thought to have consisted mostly of men who were too old for military service, yet this project has revealed that 50% of the records selected were of men under the age of 27, with 28% of the men aged 18 or younger in 1940, the year the Home  Guard was formed.'
Only the County Durham records are held by The National Archives, and have been released as a pilot project. Records for all other counties are still held by the Ministry of Defence, and there is more information about them at VeteransUK

All of the records can be searched by key word, using the online catalogue, Discovery, but only about half can be downloaded; the records for men born less than 100 years ago are closed. There is more information on a new Research Guide Durham Home Guard records 1939-1945.


Thursday, 16 August 2012

Online records - never mind the description, look at the source

The great news for genealogists is that more and more records are being digitised, indexed and published online. Every few days, it seems, FamilySearch, or one of the major commercial websites announces the launch of a new collection of records, or a significant addition to an existing one. And then you can look at each site's master list or news archive for earlier releases for all the launches that you missed. There's a lot of stuff out there.

There is so much, in fact, that it is not easy to work out exactly what is available, and how complete any collection might be. Reasonably enough, you can start by looking at the description of a collection, but that isn't always very helpful. Sometimes a site fails to provide an adequate description, and in fairness, this may be because an accurate description would be so long that you would lose the will to live before you finished reading it - I defy anyone to give a decent account of FamilySearch's  'World Misc' collection, for example.

Newly-added collections tend to have better descriptions, but they still can't be absolutely accurate, for the reasons I have just given. Some of the most useful, and most popular, sets of records being added to sites like and are the collections of digitised and indexed parish registers. They are usually classified by county, which is the most helpful kind of brief description, but you shouldn't take these at face value; don't assume that the newly-released collection of parish records for the (fictional) county of Borsetshire will include all records for all parishes and for all dates. A more  accurate description might be 'Baptism, marriage and burial registers for the ancient county of Borsetshire 1538-1925, except for those parishes in the Archdeaconry of Felpersham which are held in the Dean and Chapter Library there, the parish of Borchester whose records remain at the parish church, and the parishes of Penny Hassett and Waterly Cross which were transferred to the Metropolitan County of Shakespeareland following boundary changes in 1974'

See what I mean? Many online collections on Ancestry and Findmypast will make a lot more sense if you look at the record offices, because that's where the parish registers are held (and many more records besides). So each online collection will relate to a record office's holdings, which may or may not coincide with an actual county. The bottom line is, there is no substitute for knowing something of the history and geography of the place where your ancestors lived. For England you can find out where records are held for any parish using one of my favourite resources, England Jurisdictions 1851 or for anywhere in whole of the UK and Ireland there is GENUKI.

Ancestry has a number of collections whose descriptions give a good indication of what they contain, but which need closer attention. For example, the West Yorkshire collection consists of records from the West Yorkshire Archive Service, covering most of West Yorkshire but not all of it; the area round Sheffield and Doncaster has its own record office, and these records are not included. Its London Collection is from the holdings of the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), covering most of what is now Greater London - roughly the historic county of Middlesex with parts of Surrey, Kent and Essex. But this does not include the City of Westminster, which has its own separate record office, Westminster City Archives  (although the LMA holds some bishop's transcripts for Westminster parishes).

St James Piccadilly,
part of the Westminster Collection
The Westminster Collection itself is online at Findmypast. This collection includes lots of other material, mainly poor law records, but not school admission and discharge registers. These are held at the LMA, because they are part of the records of the London School Board. So you need to go back to Ancestry...

Other collections may be from printed, ie secondary, sources, or they might be incomplete for some reason. You will only know this if you take the time to read the source information. Different sites have different ways of providing this, but it is usually there. I am always grateful for any information that I find online, but unless I am confident about the source I treat it as a clue, not a fact.

It's easy to blame websites for making us lazy, and thinking we've done a comprehensive search by typing a name into a search box on a single site. But we shouldn't blame the internet for everything; before there were any genealogy websites some people thought they had searched a whole county's registers  by looking at the appropriate section of the IGI on fiche. And I'm sure that even longer ago some searchers used the many printed parish register volumes published by record societies and others, conveniently forgetting the less accessible registers that were still kept in parish churches. That's human nature, it's always tempting just to go for the low-hanging fruit.