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Friday, 30 March 2012

Those Places Thursday - there is more to an atlas than the maps

Beautiful coloured maps are obviously the main attraction in and old atlas, but there may be all kinds of other interesting information too. These two diagrams are from Bacon's Atlas of the British Isles 1890.

I like this way of illustrating the relative sizes of the four nations - bearing in mind of course that there was only one Ireland in 1890. This is just an illustration of their land areas, while the second diagram is a novel way of illustrating population density.

Relative density of the population of the UK 1801-1881
'Each square represents one tenth of a square mile, the dots giving the number of inhabitants on an average for each country on that area'

All the information is drawn from census statistics, and a number of more conventional census tables are also included in the atlas. One of these is a bar chart showing the actual population figures, and it is worth remembering that while the population of England, Wales and Scotland grew steadily over that period, the population of Ireland increased until 1841, and then dropped sharply, so that by 1881 it was less than it had been in 1821, the year of the first census in Ireland.

The atlas also has a handy list of the Principal Towns, arranged by county, with a one-line description of each. Some of my favourites include:
Reading, Berkshire - Abbey ruins, grammar school, seed, biscuits, ribbons
Richmond, Surrey - Pleasure resort, hill, park, boating, old palace
St Ives, Huntingdonshire - Great cattle and sheep market
Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire - Abbey restored, Yorkist victory 1471
Llandudno, Caernarvonshire - Watering-place, Great Orme's Head
Inverary, Argyleshire - Castle of Duke of Argyle, fishing on lake
Stirling, Stirlingshire - Castle, Wallace monument, tartans, Bannockburn 1314
Ballycastle, Antrim - Coal mines, romantic scenery
Middleton, Cork - Corn export, whisky distilleries, one street 

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Friday, 23 March 2012

Those Places Thursday - Chesham 'Boots, brushes and baptists'

Ornamental pillars at
Chesham station
Chesham is a market town in Buckinghamshire, and it has been my home since 2002. It's a nice place to live, surrounded by the open countryside of the Chiltern hills, but with a fast train service to London. In fact, the station is art of the London Underground, despite the fact that you have to walk up quite a steep hill to get to the station, and travel about 20 miles before the train actually goes under the ground. There is still a water-tower, a reminder of the days of steam trains, and there must still be water in it, because in the summer you can see bullrushes growing there.

It is a pretty little town, with a proper high street that still has independent shops, and a market twice a week. There used to be a market hall, too, but only the clock tower remains, as the main building was demolished a number of years ago. There is a medieval parish church, and wide range of other places of worship; Methodist, Roman Catholic, United Reformed, Salvation Army, Spiritualist and two Baptist churches (there used to be three) as well as a mosque. The local branch library is not very big, but it has a good family history and local history section. But the best place to start if you want to know about the town's history is Chesham Museum. Their site has a great collection of photographs and links to lots of other useful resources. One of the most interesting is the Roll of Honour listing the names of Chesham men who fell in the two world wars, with biographical details for most of them.

Chesham War Memorial - Remembrance Day parade 2010
Chesham was in the registration district of Amersham, from 1837 until 1974, since when it has been part of the Buckinghamshire district. Registration districts were based on Poor Law Unions, formed in 1834 by amalgamating groups of parishes. The Union Workhouse and the administration of the Union were usually based in the largest parish in the Union. In 1834 Chesham was much the largest of the parishes concerned, but the Poor Law Commissioners judged that the parish workhouse in Chesham was badly run, so the new Union was based on Amersham instead. When the paupers in the old parish workhouse were moved to Amersham in 1835, there was riot in the streets of Chesham. There is an account of this and more about the history of Amersham Union on Peter Higginbottom's wonderful The Workhouse site.

Parish church of St Mary, Chesham
Most of the records for Chesham are held at the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies in Aylesbury, but those for the various nonconformist churches and chapels are at The National Archives in record series RG4 and RG 6. They can be searched and downloaded from the BMDregisters site. Another good way of finding out about Chesham, its records, and where they are held is by entering it as a search term on England Jurisdictions 1851 which is part of FamilySearch


The George and Dragon
For general information, maps and population statistics there is A Vision of Britain Through Time and you will find pictures of listed buildings on the Images of England site. This last works better if you register (free of charge) to use the advanced search facility. 

The listed buildings include the George and Dragon (left) in the High Street. Quite a number of pubs all over the country have closed in recent years, including this one, but fortunately it has recently re-opened under new management; it's much too attractive to be empty and unused.

Finally, I haven't forgotten about the 'Boots, brushes and Baptists' part of the title, above. This is something I was told by the estate agent when I was looking at houses here, and it reflects some of the main features of the town's history. I've already explained the 'Baptists' part, and two of the main local industries were the manufacture of small wood items, especially brushes, and boot making. You can see this for yourself by browsing the census for Chesham, where you will see that much of the population was engaged in one of these occupations. You might also notice that many of the women worked in lace-making or straw-plaiting, but neither of these starts with B so it wouldn't be such a snappy title if they were included.


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Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Tuesday's tip - using the London Gazette


The London Gazette is a useful (and free!) online resource that is popular with family historians. It is often used by people looking for gallantry awards and for bankruptcies. There is an awful lot more to it than that, though, and I am still discovering new things in it. It is the oldest British newspaper that is still being published, first appearing in 1665. The site has a page giving a brief history, which includes a link to a much longer article that you can download as a Word document.

Before it went online it was widely available on microfilm, and there were printed indexes to help you find what you wanted. The online version is completely searchable by keyword, or by the date and page number found in the indexes. Many experienced researchers found the online version unsatisfactory, and still preferred to use the printed indexes and microfilm. This is understandable, because the OCR (optical character recognition) technology produces results of variable quality. But t would be a mistake to dismiss the online version out of hand, because there is a solution.

Some time ago I gave a public talk at The National Archives called The London Gazette: not just the brave and the bankrupt, which was recorded and you can listen to the podcast.  I  pointed out the limitations of the OCR, and recommended using the printed indexes to find the date and page number for an entry, then using this to locate the page in the online version. This will usually give a much better quality image than the films, some of which are pretty ropey, after years of wear and tear.

The good news is that since I gave the talk in 2010 all of the available printed indexes have been scanned and added to the site as PDF files. They start in 1829, so you are still on your own before that, but the later 19th century and 20th century volumes are the most poular periods. You can find out more on the Indexes page. So now you have the best of both worlds. Enjoy.

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Sunday, 18 March 2012

Some of the many advantages of being Scottish

Janet Soutar Brown 1856-1915
This is a post about mothers, because it is Mothering Sunday here in the UK. My own ancestry, so far as I have been able to trace it so far, is entirely Scottish and Irish, mostly Scottish. And one of the great things about Scottish records is that women never really lose their maiden names, and this makes them much easier to trace than most English women; in fact they are often easier to trace than Scottish men too.

In my own case the direct paternal line comes to an abrupt halt with the birth of my great grandfather Robert Collins in 1874 - if you want to know why, I wrote about it in a post called The cautionary tale of McIntyre.

I have been much more successful with my research in the opposite direction, where I can trace my direct female line back six generations. The severe looking lady in the picture is my great grandmother, Janet Soutar, and her great grandmother, Margaret McJannet was probably born in the 1750s or 1760s, more than a century before Robert Collins. Granted, I don't know anything about her, beyond the fact that she and her husband Andrew Drennan or Drynan were the parents of another Margaret, who was born in Carrickfergus, Co Antrim in the 1780s. This Margaret also married a soldier, William Charlton, and one of their daughters, called (guess what) Margaret, married a soldier, William Soutar, and they became the proud parents of six children, including my great grandmother Janet.

I have all the relevant birth, marriage and, crucially, death certificates. Plus of course parish register entries, census, military records and poor law applications to support my conclusions. And this is another advantage of being Scottish; there is a lot more information on certificates, and in particular you get details about mothers; for example, a marriage certificate in England and Wales gives details of the fathers of the bride and groom, but in Scotland you get the names of the mothers too, including their maiden names. Better still, if the mother has been married more than once you get all of her surnames. Death certificates give a wealth of information that English and Welsh researchers can only dream of; the full names of all of the deceased's spouses, and the names of both of their parents, including of course the mother's maiden name.

Searching for the deaths of married women or widows is also easier in Scotland, because they are indexed by both surnames. So even someone with the commonest of names is comparatively easy to find because you are looking for a pair of matching entries, rather like searching for a marriage. This is just as well, since Janet's married surname was Brown. Have you any idea how many Janet Browns have died in Scotland? Neither have I, but a Janet Brown cross-referenced with Janet Soutar wasn't hard to find. Finding her husband John's death was a lot more difficult! And I only know about Margaret McJannet in the first place because she appears on her daughter's death certificate; Margaret Charlton (nee Drennan/Drynan) lived long enough for her death to be recorded in Scottish civil registration. Registration began in 1855, and she died in 1858, aged 75.

Death entry for Margaret Charlton 1858 RD 644/03 (courtesy of ScotlandsPeople)
 I know a lot more about many female ancestors in all of the direct lines; the Scottish practice of recording maiden names in all kinds of records was very useful, but the fact that they were poor was of even more help. All four of my great grandmothers appear in the Glasgow Poor Law records held at the Mitchell Library; Janet was the only one of them who did not apply for poor relief, but her mother did so when she was a young child so details are recorded for Janet and her siblings. Whenever the central heating breaks down, or I run out of milk, or suffer from some other 21st century inconvenience, I think about the incredibly hard lives these mothers led, their many pregnancies, and the children they lost. I have led a charmed life by comparison,

So let's hear it for mothers past, and their mothers, and their mothers' mothers. We wouldn't be here without them.


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Friday, 16 March 2012

Those Places Thursday - Collins' Illustrated Guide to London and Neighbourhood

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'Whether we consider London as the metropolis of a great and mighty empire, upon the dominions of whose sovereign the sun never sets, or as the home of more than three and a half millions of people, and the richest city in the world to boot, it must ever be a place which strangers wish to visit.'

Well, practically everything in that sentence has changed since it was written in the late 19th century, except the last bit. London has always attracted people, visiting for business or pleasure, and we are expecting even more than usual for the Olympics later this year.

I have written about this wonderful little book before, but it is always worth re-visiting. It begins with a suggested itinerary for each a week's visit, day by day; the advice for the whole of Sunday is to look at the Saturday newspaper for a list of preachers and their engagements. For the other days the suggestions are not so different from modern guide books:

  • Westminster Abbey, St Margaret's, St James's Park, Bond Street and Regent Street.
  • South Kensington and Natural History Museum, Albert Memorial, Regent's Park and Zoological Gardens.
  • Tower, Monument, Docks, Guildhall, St Helen's Church, Crosby Hall, St Paul's Cathedral, General Post Office and home by river.
  • Windsor and Eton
  • National Gallery, Crystal Palace, or Richmond Park and Kew Gardens.
  • Houses of Parliament, Record Office, British Museum, Madame Tussaud's.
Sounds pretty exhausting to me. Most of the attractions listed are still popular with visitors today, although Crosby Hall and St Helen's Church will be unfamiliar to most. The Collins Guide tells us that Crosby Hall in Bishopsgate was once the residence of Richard III, but is now a restaurant. St Helen's church, adjacent to the Hall, contains the effigies of the hall's founder Sir John Crosby and his wife Agnes. You can still visit the church, but not the hall; a modern building now stands on the site, with a plaque commemorating the medieval building it has replaced. But the hall was not demolished, it was dismantled and moved to Cheyne Walk, Chelsea in 1910.

General Post Office
The magnificent General Post Office building still exists, but only as a shell. The interior was completely redeveloped as an office building, Nomura House, when the Post Office left in 1984. Two other places on the list have also changed significantly; the Record Office building in Chancery Lane is still there, but it now houses the library of King's College. The institution has changed its name twice, and its location once, and is now The National Archives at Kew, as if you didn't already know that. The Crystal Palace had already moved from Hyde Park to Sydenham by the time the guide appeared, but sadly is no more, having burned down in the 1930s. It has left its mark on London, though, since the area when it stood still bears the name Crystal Palace.

Crystal Palace interior
I have visited almost all of the places on the list, but spread out over several decades, not crammed into a single week. If I had the time I might try to visit more of the places in the guide, taking the book with me, to see how much of it is still relevant. Quite a lot of the historic attractions are still there, although the prices have gone up a bit, I think!

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