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Writer of: Researching Ancestors Through Their Personal Writings (forthcoming 2016); Family First: Tracing Relationships in the Past (forthcoming 2015); It Runs in the Family (2013); Stories From Your Family Tree (2008); The Northern Utopia: British Perceptions of Norway in the Nineteenth Century (2003); The Governess (1997)

Monday, 26 September 2016

Snoop......... checking out your ancestors' neighbours.....

Keeping Up With the Joneses: What Your Ancestors’ Neighbours Can Tell You About Them

If you have reached a brick wall searching backwards in time for your nearest and dearest, why not turn your attention instead to those who lived behind the brick walls all around your family home! There’s a lot to be learned by stepping imaginatively int your ancestor’s community. And certainly, there is no quicker way to achieve this than by taking a look in the records at the people who lived next door.

The neighbours were not a mere backdrop to your ancestors’ lives. They were the people who contributed to its overall flavour and occasionally, they may even have taken an active part in your family’s developing history. The neighbours are the people to whom your family would have spoken most frequently on a daily basis, the ones would have informally minded their children, sat with their sick and helped to lay out their dead. In times when shops closed early and telephones didn’t exist, it was to the neighbours that your ancestors would go if they ran out of food, or needed physial or emotional assistance of any kind.  Your ancestors will have shared many experiences with their neighbours – from disease and unemployment to weekend pastimes, holidays and festivals. Neighbours are also the people next to whom your ancestors probably sat in church, and with whom they drank, and played sport at local clubs and pubs. And it’s beside the neighbours too that your ancestors would probably be buried.

All in all, the lives of the people next door may have been more similar to your ancestors’ own than that of their actual kin. So, it’s worth taking a peek behind the net curtains (metaphorically speaking) to find out more.

Neighbours in the Records.

Many kinds of record can tell you more about your ancestors’ neighbours:

  • Nineteenth- and early twentieth century- censuses are probably the most useful documents for this purpose. (1841 to 1911 are now available online). To discover more about relevant neighbours, scroll down the page and visit the pages before and after the entries for your ancestors’ family.

  • Birth marriage and death certificates may reveal that the people next door were the informants or witnesses at major events in your family’s history.

  • Trade directories (many of which are searchable online at www.historicaldirectories.org) will give you the names of people running businesses adjacent to those run by your family. Such directories tend to be organised in several different ways (alphabetically, under type of business and – crucially for the study of neighbours – as building by building indexes of streets).

  • A wealth of other records including: court records, membership books of working-men’s clubs, records of scout groups, the account books of local friendly societies and sick clubs, passenger lists may unexpectedly reveal the names and addresses of those who lived near to your ancestors and who shared aspects of their lives with them.

Ten Things to Consider

1. Family On the Doorstep

With people in the past settling away from home less often than they do today, it was common for siblings, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins to live in neighbouring streets, if not in neighbouring houses. It is always worth scrolling down through census pages immediately before and after those on which your ancestors appear just to see whether the same surname (or any other family surname) turns up. But be careful, identical surnames do not necessarily indicate a family connection.

2. The House Next Door

From 1861 onwards, the censuses for England and Wales asked whether houses were inhabited or uninhabited. In theory, then, you should be able to get a feel for exactly how populated your ancestors’ street or area was. But take care with this information: in fact, many buildings in city centres which may have been full of life during the daytime, would have been uninhabited on the night of the census because they were workshops and not living quarters.

From 1891, the census asked how many rooms in a house were occupied (if fewer than five) and Scottish censuses from 1861 also asked how many rooms in each residence had windows  (a question generated by the general mid-nineteenth century concern about the lack of ventilation in overcrowded homes). By looking at these figures for your ancestors and their neighbours, you should be able to work out how your ancestors’ houses compared in size (and light!) to those in their immediate vicinity.

3. Making a Living

Comparing the employment of your ancestor with those of his immediate neighbours (as recorded on the census and in trade directories) can be an illuminating exercise. Were the neighbours in the same basic income bracket as your ancestors or not? Was it common it that area to take in lodgers? Were your ancestors in some sort of working relationship with the neighbours? Perhaps they occupied a lodge house on a large estate? Maybe the two families shared a workshop?

My great-grandfather, William Symes (living in 1891 at number 29 Llanfair Street, Ancoats) was a ‘carter’, sometimes described as a ‘townsman’. His neighbour, Mr Hoyle (at number 23) was a ‘railway warehouseman’, another, Mr Lewis (No 27) was an iron ‘turner’. Mr Dean (at number 31) was an ‘iron moulder’ (and his mother with whom he shared a house was a charwoman). Mr Dore (round the corner at 2, Waugh Street) was a ‘sewing machine mechanic’. The offspring of these men were ‘carter’s assistants,’ ‘general labourers’, ‘lurrymen,’ and ‘coal dealers’. In this sense, the Symes family were entirely typical of their neighbourhood being employed in the lower (but not the lowest) end of industrial-related work.

4. Places of Origin

Censuses asked for the place of birth of everyone living in a house. It is interesting to compare birthplaces of all the inhabitants of a street. In late nineteenth century Manchester – a city to which thousands migrated - it is hardly surprising to find that the adult inhabitants of a single street were all born elsewhere in places such as Cheshire, Lancashire and Derbyshire. My family, unusually, had come from much further afield. William Symes was born in Martock, Somersetshire and his wife Elizabeth (nee Terrell), in Henstridge, Somersetshire. I have often wondered whether they were considered a bit strange or different because of their south-western accents? Did they have different habits and customs, different ways of dressing and different tastes in food from their northwesterly neighbours?

By contrast, you may find that your ancestors’ neighbours all hail from a similar area. Many inhabitants of particular Irish villages, for instance, came and settled in England’s big industrial cities and it was natural that they would want to live close to those who had been neighbours at home.

5. Chatting across the garden fence

It’s pleasant to think of our ancestors gossiping with their neighbours across hedges and fences. But remember that, especially in the growing industrial cities, many languages would have been spoken within a small geographical area. Manchester, for example, had an influx of Russian Jews, German and Italians, amongst many other nationalities. Scottish censuses asked whether or not residents could speak Gaelic. It is interesting to compare neighbours in this respect. Residents who could not speak the language of the rest of their community may have been very isolated.

6.  Families Large and Small?

It is easy to imagine that the number of children your family had was entirely a matter of personal choice, but research has proved otherwise. The size of your family will actually probably have reflected that of other families around them in their neighbourhood. In some communities, such as those where heavy industries were the main source of work, families tended to be large in every generation right up to the end of the nineteenth century. For them, it was useful to have many children who could ultimately bring in a wage. In other areas, however, such as mill towns like Bolton, Lancashire, where there were many women in the labour force, fertility rates among the working classes were generally low.

7. Present at the Death

Neighbours sometimes entered into our family histories at crucial moments. If a neighbour witnessed a birth or a death or a marriage, his or her name might be recorded on the corresponding certificates.

My great-great-great grandfather, also William Symes, was a farm labourer, who died in Martock, Somerset of typhoid fever in 1864. The informant of his death was a woman named Sarah Margery who is described as being ‘ in attendance.’ This suggests that she was nursing him through his final illness. I searched for Sarah Margery in the Martock census and discovered that she was a neighbour of William’s. In the census of 1881, she appears as a ‘washerwoman’ and in 1891 as a ‘sick nurse’ lodging in the house of an elderly local lady. This local do-gooder is still recorded as living in Martock in the census of 1901.

  1. Neighbours from Hell

Court records reveal that many legal disputes in the past – just as now - were between close neighbours. Neighbours may have disputed boundaries and entitlements, for example, and there is always the possibility that your ancestors suffered from the types of crime, such as assault and affray, that often occur between people living in close proximity. The records of serious crimes which resulted in cases at the Old Bailey and the Assize Courts are kept at the National Archives (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/). Those for smaller crimes, which were dealt with in Magistrates’ courts and Quarter Sesssions, are likely to be held in local archives (but can be searched via the same website). The addresses of the plaintiffs and the accused will alert you to those cases in which neighbours were involved.

9. Communities on the Move

The neighbours may have been even more actively engaged in joint enterprise with your ancestors. When I was researching the history of my great-great uncle, Lancashire miner, Rueben Wilkinson, I began by assuming that he had travelled to America in 1907 as a lone adventurer seeking to make his fortune. As I scrolled down through the relevant passenger lists at (http//:www.ancestry.co.uk), however, I realised (by looking at their recorded addresses) that many of the other passengers were from the same part of Lancashire (from Leigh, Westhougton and  Wigan). They were all going to work as miners in the town of Roslyn, Washington State. Far from being a man on a lonely mission, Rueben was one of a group of many neighbours. His trip was a community affair.

10. Till Death Us Do Part

If you are researching ancestors who fought in the First World War, it is worth scrolling down through the 1911 census as well as looking at military records. Many neighbours and friends joined up together – a phenomenon actively encouraged by the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, in the early days of the conflict. Kitchener believed that more men would join the army if they thought that they would be fighting alongside friends, neighbours and work colleagues (‘Pals’) rather than being allocated to regular army regiments.

All this goes to show that if you are dipping into census and other material simply to find details about your own ancestors, you are missing a trick. Taking a look at the   circumstances of ‘them next-door’, can put you in the picture of your own family’s lives in a way no photograph or book ever can. 

Useful Websites

www.historicaldirectories.org  Site listing many searchable trade directories online

http://www.census-helper.co.uk/victorian-life/ Gives some general information about some of the norms of Victorian employment, income, family size etc.

http://www.localhistories.org/vichomes.html On the accommodation and facilities in Victorian homes of all classes.

Useful Books

Benson. John, The Working-Class in Britain, 1850-1939, I. B. Tauris, 2003

Davies. Andrew and Fielding, Steven, eds, Workers' Worlds: Cultures and Communities in Manchester and Salford, 1880-1939, (MUP, 1992).

Garrett, E. et al, Changing Family Size in England and Wales, 1891 –1911, CUP, 2006

Laybourn. Keith, ed. Social Conditions, Status and Community, 1860-c.1920:
Sutton, 1997.

Turner. William, Pals: the 11th (Service) Battalion (Accrington), East Lancashire Regiment, Pen and Sword Books, 1993.

#familytree #ancestors #ancestry #neighbours #neighbors #certifiates #neighbourhoods  #neighborhoods #genealogy

Austerity and the taking in of lodgers

Mystery Guests in the Family

Ruth A. Symes

Recent austerity has forced many of us to consider innovative ways to increase the amount of cash in our pockets.  Liquidating the capital in our homes by re-mortgaging is a popular, if chancy method, but property has proved to be a valuable cash cow in other ways as well. Across the country, garages and attics have been cleaned out and rented as storage space or offices, for example, and many families in straightened circumstances have dusted down their spare rooms and rented them out, for months, weeks and even a night at a time. Likewise young people with no property to their names have found lodging to be a cost effective way of making the move to a new city for work.

Lodging and its more casual sidekick, so- called ‘sofa-surfing,’- might seem like a relatively cool and modern phenomenon, but  turning domestic space into hard cash is actually an age-old practice with its heyday in the Victorian period. And it should come as no surprise to family historians to find that many of their ancestors spent time as a landlord or a lodger, or even both, at moments in their lives when money was short.

Mystery guests pop up in homes all the time on the decennial censuses taken between 1841 and 1911 (and now easily available online at websites such as www.ancestry.co.uk and www.findmypast.co.uk). The young man making a furtive appearance in one small Manchester terrace in 1891, for example, was 22 year-old Thomas Metcalf. After a bit of delving and with a better understanding of the times, his situation became clear. Thomas’s birthplace was Farndon in Cheshire, but his employment was as a carter on the railway in central Manchester (an employment he shared with his landlord). With bicycles, trams, cars and buses not yet invented, and train lines limited, the best option for Thomas would have been to find lodgings and walk to work.  

Young women were not considered safe in homes that took in lodgersAdd caption

Like Thomas, the vast majority of lodgers in the Victorian period were young men who may have moved to the industrial centres from rural areas, or indeed from other urban areas. They included navvies and builders who were gradually constructing the great Victorian cities. Many also came from the aspiring lower-middle and professional classes and included shop assistants, clerks, accountants, and trainee clerics. Workers may have lodged on a weekly basis returning home at the weekends, or may have lodged seasonally, moving on when their contracts finished.

In 1901, the same terraced house put a roof over the head of another paying guest, 55 year-old Hannah Perkinson, described on the census as ‘a weaver in a cotton factory.’  Contrary to popular belief a fair number of nineteenth-century females in trades such as dressmaking lodged in towns far from the places where they had been born and where the rest of their families remained. Unlike Thomas who was described as a lodger, Hannah was a ‘boarder.’ Her hosts, it seems had wised up. Boarders paid more since they took their meals with the family.

In the Victorian period, those who took in lodgers tended to fall into well-defined categories: widows and other unsupported women especially those who had previously worked as domestic servants; poverty-stricken and child-free couples in late middle age or early retirement; and poor young families where children were small and could easily be bundled into the same room as their parents thus freeing up space for newcomers. Whoever they were, the Victorian press turned up its nose up at those desperate enough to have to rent out parts their homes. Today, thankfully, the stigma is gone. Taking in lodgers is a practice undertaken by all manner of folk at all stages of their lives.

Modern landlords have it pretty easy compared to their Victorian counterparts. Our ancestors’ lodgers – though they might have had to bring their own ‘effects’ (i.e. furniture) with them -   expected their landlord or landlady to provide ‘attendance, light and firing.’ Attendance meant carrying water for the lodger, emptying his slops such as waste waters and chamber-pots, making his fire, running errands for him and cleaning his boots. ‘Light’ and ‘firing’ referred to the supply of candles and coal, a Victorian equivalent perhaps of access to electricity and WIFI today.  Rather than popping something in the communal microwave, nineteenth- century lodgers might have made meals on the fires within their own rooms, or might have bought their own food and paid a small sum for it to be cooked by the landlady.

Combatting austerity isn’t easy. Niggles about cleaning the bathroom, respecting private space and guarding property are all commonly cited as areas of conflict in the landlord-lodger arrangement. And so it was in the nineteenth century when the press relished describing the supposed uncleanliness and immorality of houses that were partly rented out. Male lodgers, it was frequently suggested, might defile their female hosts on the backstairs; female lodgers, on the other hand, were characterised as leading ‘loose’ lives away from the watchful eye of their parents. And then there were the many tales of neglectful lodgers who left candles or fires burning in their rooms which could potentially be a danger to property and people.

But let’s not forget the bonuses of the lodging arrangement. Many landlords now and in the past have achieved a better standard of life because of the money brought in by their lodgers, and the lodgers themselves, (able to live affordably near their work ), have, in turn, been able to support their own families back home.  

My new book, Unearthing Family Tree Mysteries, looks at a number of topical issues from our family histories such as lodging, emigration for work, fertility issues, and women’s career aspirations. Based on case studies which investigate 12 family history mysteries, this book gives practical tips on how to make best use of many kinds of historical record (including census material, birth, marriage and death certificates, recipe books, diaries, and passports), and how to set your ancestors’ stories in their correct historical context.


                                                                  New £12.99

                                                            Kindle Edition £7.34

#familytree #genealogy #familytree #ancestors #lodgers #austerity #landlords #victorian

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Ten tips for getting more out of marriage certificates

‘Married When June Roses Grow’
Ten tips on marriage certificates and where to go next

You’ve got the marriage certificate, but where do you go from here? You can find out a great deal more about your ancestors and their marriage on the internet providing you know where to look and the right questions to ask.

Elizabeth Symes nee Terrell 1856-1940

William Symes 1855-1907

1. When did they marry?

My great grandparents, William Symes and Elizabeth Terrell married on June 2nd 1884. According to the website http://www.paulsadowski.org/BirthDay.asp this was a Monday - perhaps chosen for its association with good health (see box). June was probably the most popular month in Victorian times for wedding nuptials. A popular verse promised that ‘Married when June Roses Grow, O’er Land and sea you’ll go.’ (For a full version of the verse see: http://www.labomboniera.co.uk/wedding-poem). There was also a superstition about bad luck following couples who married in the month of May (‘Marry in May and you’ll rue the day’) which meant that vicars were often kept busy at the end of April and the beginning of June.

Monday for health,
Tuesday for wealth,
Wednesday best of all,
Thursday for losses,
Friday for crosses,
Saturday for no luck at all

Bear in mind that marriages were more popular on certain days of the year in specific parts of the British Isles. New Year’s Day, for example, was an auspicious day for Scottish weddings. For more on the superstitions around the days and months on which to marry see: http://chestofbooks.com/food/household/Woman-Encyclopaedia-1/Marriage-Lucky-and-Unlucky-Months.html. To find out the date of Easter in the year that your ancestors married and the dates of other important religious festivals (from any denomination) visit http://www.smart.net/~mmontes/ec-cal.html.

You can check online to see what, if any, significant national or world events took place in the year of your ancestors’ marriage at http://www.historyorb.com/.  The website http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1884  gives the key events in British and World history in 1884 as well as listing contemporary world leaders, and memorable moments in culture and the arts. Local newspapers, often available to view on microfiche in local libraries, can provide fascinating insights into the world with which your ancestors would have been familiar. Particularly relevant to William and Elizabeth would have been the opening, in the same month as their marriage, of a new Manchester railway station – Manchester Exchange Station. Since William’s job (as a carter, see point 7 below) involved the transportation of goods from stations to warehouses around the city, this would have welcome news. 

2. Where did they marry?

The marriage certificate gives the place of William and Elizabeth’s marriage as the Parish Church of St Mary, Beswick in the County of Lancaster.  A search at http://www.genuki.org.uk/big/churchdb/ shows that this church was a new one in the area having been founded in 1878 – just six years before the marriage.

Find a photograph of the church in which your ancestors married at http://www.churches-uk-ireland.org/ - a website which aims ultimately to have photographs of all the churches in Britain and Ireland. Postcards with pictures of churches can be searched at http://churchphotos.homestead.com/Britain.html. You may also find pictures of churches at the British Listed Buildings site http://www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/. More information about churches from many denominations can be found through http://www.churches-uk-ireland.org/denominational.html.

The Marriage Act of 1753 declared that all marriage ceremonies in England and Wales must be conducted by a minister in a parish church or chapel of the Church of England. Jews and Quakers were exempt from this Act, but Non-Conformists and Catholics had to be married in Anglican Churches. After the Marriage Act of 1836, Non-Conformists and Catholics could be married in their own churches. Non-religious civil marriages could also be made in registry offices after this time. In practice, however, most couples chose to marry in church.

3. Who were the witnesses to the marriage and is it relevant that they could sign their names?

The witnesses of William and Elizabeth’s marriage were the bride’s father, William Terrell, her two sisters, Jane and Annie, and ‘William Dibble’ (the man who later married Jane Terrell and became William’s brother-in-law). Interestingly, all the witnesses came from Elizabeth’s side of the family reminding me of the fact that William (a migrant to Manchester from the South West) had no relations in Manchester.

Many witnesses to nineteenth-century marriages were relations of the marrying couple. If a blood connection with the witnesses is not obvious, take a look at the nearest census in time to your ancestors’ wedding date, you may find that the witnesses were in fact neighbours of your family.

The Education Act of 1870 aimed to guarantee the attendance at school of children between the ages of 5 and 13. Don’t assume, however, that because witnesses could write their names, they could read and write properly. It is estimated that it was not until 1914 that 99% of the population were literate. Many witnesses to marriages simply signed the register with a cross. This is probably because they were illiterate, but don’t rule out the other possibility - they may well simply have been too drunk to sign on the day of the nuptials!

4. What rights did my female ancestor have within marriage at this time?

Elizabeth Terrell married just two years after the passing of the momentous Married Women’s Property Act (1882). This allowed women, for the first time in history, to keep any property they owned before marriage and to keep any earnings that they acquired after marriage. The Act probably had little effect on the Symes/Terrell marriage as Elizabeth, a domestic servant, would have owned nothing before marriage and probably gave up work on marriage.

Women’s rights in marriage improved slowly but surely during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. To find out more about what your female ancestor was entitled to expect see: see http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/Wmarriage.htm.

5. What can I learn from my ancestors’ ages at marriage?
At 28, William and Elizabeth were slightly above the average age at which men and women in England and Wales married in the last decades of the nineteenth century. According to the Every Woman’s Encylopedia, the average age for women marrying in 1896 (12 years after the Symes/Terrell marriage) was 25.08 and men 26.59 . In 1884, these figures would have been slightly lower. The fact that William was as old as 28 when he married may be explained by the secret revealed at point 10 below.
During the 19th century the minimum age at which marriage was permitted (with parental consent) was 12 for a girl and 14 for a boy. In 1929, the Ages in Marriage Act  raised this to 16 for both sexes. Until the age of 21, marriages had to have the consent of parents or guardians.

6. How can I find out more about what the wedding was actually like?

William and Elizabeth were working-class people. As such, it is likely that their wedding went ahead with very little fuss. For many historic traditions and superstitions at weddings see:  http://www.weddings.co.uk/info/tradsup.htm.  For a brief history of the wedding dress in Britain see: http://www.dressfinder.com/history-wedding-dresses/.. But remember that many of the fashions and traditions described on the web apply to middle and upper-class brides only.

In working-class unions such as that between William and Elizabeth, it was common for the couple to have brief ceremony in church and to then go home for a wedding breakfast. Afternoon weddings only became popular after 1886 when there was a change in the canonical hours. Often the bride’s mother would have stayed at home to prepare this. Elizabeth may have worn a white dress (which was common for bridal gowns after the wedding of Queen Victoria in 1840) but is more likely that bride and groom both simply wore their Sunday best. In fact, so understated was the working-class wedding that William may well have gone to work on the afternoon.

7. Where can I find out more about my ancestors’ occupations?

William Symes’s occupation on his marriage certificate is given as ‘carter’. The same term is used to describe the work of both his father, ‘William Symes’ and his father-in-law, ‘William Terrell’. In the nineteenth-century city, carters (using horse-driven vehicles) were important carriers of produce and people.  For more on male occupations in history see http://genealogy.about.com/od/records/a/occupations.htmhttp://genealogy.about.com/od/records/a/occupations.htm or http://www.amlwchhistory.co.uk/data/occupations.htm.

On the marriage certificate, Elizabeth Terrell is described as a ‘domestic servant’. I found out a little more about this from the 1881 census where she is recorded as working as a cook for the family of a lawyer  in Cheetham Hill, Manchester. Remember that on the marriage certificates of many women (particularly in the middle and upper classes), the space for occupation was usually left blank as the task of running the domestic household was not considered to be work. Also, much paid work undertaken by working-class women such as laundering, charring, and laying out the dead went unrecorded.

For a useful alphabetical list of both men’s and women’s occupation as recorded in the 1891 census for London see http://www.census1891.com/occupations-a.htm

8. What can I learn about my ancestors’ place of residence at the time of marriage?

According to the certificate, my great-grandparents lived very near to each other prior to their marriage: William at 6 Brewery Street, Ashton New Road, Manchester and Elizabeth at 18 Forrest Street, Beswick in the same city. They married, as was customary,  at a church in the bride’s parish. To count as such, the bride had to have lived in the parish for fifteen days prior to the banns first being read.

For more information on your ancestors’ residence at the time of their marriage, try entering the relevant place name at www.visionofbritain.org.uk or www.british-history.ac.uk. Local history societies can provide more detailed information about specific areas, see www.local-history.co.uk/groups/. Local libraries and archives will, in all probability, have photographs of the area and even the street in which your ancestor was born.  A new website www.historypin.com allows people to attach old photographs of places to a map of Britain – your ancestor’s street may just be online.

9. Where else might I find information about my ancestors’ marriage?

Records of your ancestor’s marriage will be kept in the parish register relating to the church in which they married. Many of these have been transcribed and can be accessed online or via a CD: see www.parishregister.co.uk/ for more information. Original parish registers may be kept in the original church or in the County Record Office. Their location can be searched at www.nationalarchives.org.

It is also possible that your details of the marriage have been recorded in a Family Bible. But be careful, details recorded a long time after the event may be full of errors.

10. Can I believe everything I read on a marriage certificate?

In short, no. The marriage certificate featured here startlingly includes two falsifications.

First, William Symes gives his marital status as ‘bachelor,’ when in fact he was a widower - a fact I discovered from the 1881 census.

Secondly William’s father is given on the certificate as ‘William Symes, deceased’. In fact, the groom was illegitimate. I traced his birth certificate and found that no father is recorded. William took his surname from his mother, Emma Symes. In his early years he was brought up by his grandfather whose name was also William Symes, and it is likely that he simply used this name on the certificate to cover up an embarrassing situation.

Useful Books

Paul Atterbury and Hilary Kay, The Wedding: 150 Years of Down the Aisle Style, David and Charles, 2006

Molly Dolan Blayney, Wedded Bliss: Victorian Courtship and Marriage, Abbeville Press, 1992.

Avril Lansdell, Wedding Fashions 1860-1980 (History in Camera), Shire Publications, 1986

Margaret Ward, Female Occupations: Women’s Employment from 1840-1950, Countryside Books, 2008.

#ancestors #familyhistory #marriagecertificates #familyhistorybooks #familyfirst # itrunsinthefamily #unearthingfamilytreemysteries #ancestry

Thursday, 11 August 2016

How Our Ancestors Washed Their Dirty Linen

Servants, Machines and the Weekly Wash, 1750-1950

In the Dolly Tub (courtesy of Wigan World)

Servants are the very backbone of British family history. With access to the 1911 census, the vast majority of us will probably have discovered that our early twentieth-century ancestors either kept servants or worked as servants themselves. Indeed, by the 1880s, around a third of all young women in Britain between the ages of 15 and 21 were likely to be in service and this corresponded with a sharp rise at the time in the numbers of families able to afford resident domestic staff. 

Large country houses and substantial urban villas might have employed a whole retinue of minions ranging from 'cook' and 'housekeeper,' to 'parlour maid', 'scullery maid', 'nursery maid', 'lady's maid,' 'housemaid,' 'chambermaid,' 'butler', 'steward', 'laundry maid,' each with his or her own special duties. But in the late nineteenth century, a majority of three-fifths of all servants were employed singly as ‘maids-of-all work’ or 'general servants' in the homes of small tradesmen such as drapers, plumbers, and coal merchants. In the two hundred years from 1750-1950, whilst the tasks of  servants remained in essence the same, inventions and advances in technology meant that new labour-saving devices were constantly changing the nature of their domestic work.  

Washday early 1890s (Courtesy of Wigan World)

Surprisingly, perhaps, at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the British middle classes often preferred to pay a servant to work for them rather than buy new domestic appliances to help with washing, cleaning and cooking. Whilst domestic technology took off in America, the new -fangled machines were generally considered expensive and unreliable on this side of the Atlantic. But, with the ever-improving accessibility of electricity (a new power source that could be fed directly into the home), the development of better soaps and detergents attuned to the new machines, and the continual reduction in prices, it became progressively harder for employers to resist the charms of items such as washing machines, dryers and vacuum cleaners. In addition to other (political and social) changes in the way our working-class ancestors lived, the development of labour-saving appliances was one very obvious reason why far fewer of them were employed as servants from the end of the First World War onwards.

Here is a brief introduction to some historic labour-saving devices in the areas of washing and cleaning.

Washing and Cleaning

Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries

There is little wonder that the hands of our  laundry maid ancestor were characteristically puckered and bleached. Traditionally, her work was heavy and arduous. First the clothes of the household would be 'bucked with lye' - that is soaked overnight in a solution made from wood ash (and sometimes from pigeon, hen dung, bran or urine). The next morning, she would rub the clothes   through on a corrugated washboard made of wood or some sort of metal, wring them out by hand and then wash them in very hot water. Large quantities of washing were done by hand in a dolly tub using a dolly peg, posser or punch.

After rubbing, pounding and rinsing, the maid would boil white clothes in a furnace with shredded soap (often made by the maid herself on the premises from kitchen grease combined with lye or burnt seaweed and common salt). She would lift the clothes out of the dolly tub with a dolly stick and then rinse them in first warm, then cool and then 'blued' water. 

Traditionally, the laundry maid would mangle the clothes by wrapping damp items around a roller which she then placed on a flat surface and then rolled backwards and forwards with a heavy board. 'Box mangles' were introduced during the late eighteenth century. These comprised a thick wooden roller around which the maid would wind the clothes before using a rope or leather strap to crank over them a wooden box weighted with stones.

Drying was achieved by laying the clothes outside on grass or hedges to dry or fix them to a  line with cleft wooden pegs. In large country houses, sliding drying racks were often built near to the boiler. Socks and stockings were dried on wooden, china or wire moulds to help them retain their shape.

Eighteenth-century 'box irons' were usually made of iron or steel and included an iron slug (designed to fit inside) which was heated in the fire. Some irons were heated by charcoal (taken from the embers of the burning fire) which was placed in the body of the iron. The weight of the iron, its terrific heat and the fumes emanating from it all made ironing an unpleasant and even dangerous task.

The cleaning of carpets, upholstery and drapes was perhaps one of the most arduous tasks of the domestic servant. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution (from 1750 onwards) with all its soot and grime, the old practice of covering carpets with canvas cloths when the house was empty and with rugs or druggets during times of occupation, became less and less satisfactory.

Early Victorian Period

It was  not until Victorian times that hand-driven washing machines became at all popular. Early models were of the cradle type and worked on a 'rocking box' principle. In the 1850s and 1860s, J. Picken of Birmingham and others marketed a washing machine that worked on the same principle as a butter churn.  But even if the household had such a machine, laundrywork continued to be time- and energy- intensive for the strong-armed washerwomen of the day.  Servants cleaned carpets by hand with stiff brushes, removing ink, oil and grease stains individually with a variety of home-made potions including lemon juice and white bread.

Late Victorian Period

The hand-operated 'Victress Vowel' washing machine by Thomas Bradford of Salford, was the most popular washing machine of the day. Other 'new-fangled' machines involved a variety of 'agitating' apparatus such as cogged wheels, lever-operated drums, paddles, and wooden rollers. Cheap bars of Lifebuoy Soap (invented by Lever Brothers in 1895) contributed to an easing of the laundry maid's tasks. Mangling could now be done on small upright machines (incorportaing two or three rollers made of white wood). More sophisticated charcoal-fuelled flat irons and even paraffin irons were being used by the end of the century.   The first manual vacuum cleaners, using bellows and handcranks, were devised in the 1860s and 1870s in America but did not catch on in Britain. Servants continued to brush and wash carpets on their knees using a variety of unpleasant chemical-based solutions including naptha and chloroform.

Around 1900

The turn-of-the-century laundry-maid probably benefited little from the first electrified washing machines (developed by the American companies Thor (1906) and A. J. Fisher (1908)). The machines – little known in Britain - were ungainly and hazardous, consisting of a dolly tub and dolly peg fitted to a belt driven by an external electric motor. More easily-operable mangling machines now had rollers made wholly or partly of rubber and some of these were table-mounted. By 1907, electric irons were appearing in some London stores but they were far too expensive for the ordinary consumer. The first electric vacuum cleaner, which used suction power, was invented in 1901 by H. Cecil Booth and was used to clean the carpets in Westminster Abbey before the coronation of Edward VII, but early machines like this were large industrial devices, taken by horse and cart from building to building. It was only after Hoover brought out the rotating brush model vacuum cleaner in 1908, and once devices became more portable, that servants in private homes started to feel the benefit of vacuuming technology.


After the First World War, there were many more job opportunities - offering more money, better conditions and a degree of emancipation - for working-class women. Little wonder that far fewer went into domestic service. In the twenties, those who did work in the homes of the middle-classes still undertook most of the household washing by hand despite the introduction of some new slicker cabinet-type washing machines powered by internal electric motors. The first electric tumbler dryers were also available. But  few of these machines could be found in Britain and they were extremely expensive, selling at between £30 and £50. The widespread usage of electric machines – in metal rather than wooden cabinets - was held back by the fact that there was no co-ordinated national electricity grid in Britain until the late 1930s.

1940s and 1950s

After the Second World War, the age of the servant was almost over but, for a while in the Post-War age of austerity, little seemed to have changed on the domestic front. The first electric drying machine with a glass window was invented by Brooks Stevens in 1940 but it was hardly a common sight in British homes. Vacuum cleaners too continued to be considered a luxury item until well after the Second World War. Women of the middle classes (or their hired helps) continued to use hand-driven washing machines. The mid-1940s saw the welcome development of heavy-duty detergents in America. But it was only ten years later, in the economically more prosperous and settled Britain of the 1950s, that electric washing machines (together with drying and vacuuming machines) finally started to become as popular here as they were across the Atlantic.

Useful Books

Jacqueline Fearn, Domestic Bygones, Shire, 2005.

Pamela Horn, The Rise and Fall of the Domestic Servant, Alan Sutton, 1986.

Trevor May, The Victorian Domestic Servant, Shire, 1999.

Pamela Sambrook, Laundry Bygones, Shire, 1983.

Christina Hardyment, From Mangle to Microwave, Polity Press, 1988.

Rebecca Weaver and Rodney Dale, Machines in the Home, The British Library, 1992.

Useful Websites

http://www.morphyrichards.co.uk/History.aspx The history of domestic appliances produced by Morphy Richards

www.bbc.co.uk/learningzone/clips/early-domestic-appliances/3508.html Short video on the history of domestic appliances – heat and power, washing, cooking and food preservation and cleaning.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vacuum_cleaner Complete history of the vacuum cleaner

#familyhistory #Britain #British #ancestors #women'shistory #washday #laundry #domestictechnology #domestic #servants #domesticservice #ancestor #ancestors #familytree

Strange weather for the time of year

'Strange Weather For the Time of Year'

Think the weather is turning a bit strange? Not feeling like August at all? Don't worry, it's not half so bad as it was 200 years ago. Spare a thought for our ancestors who really did spend a year without any summer at all. And suffered much more besides.  

After the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, our ancestors were probably looking forward to a few years of peace and prosperity. But on April 10 of that year, the Tambora (or Tamboro) volcano in Indonesia erupted to the tune of 7 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index – the largest volcanic eruption for nearly two millennia. Tambora was the last in a series of similar (though lesser) volcanic eruptions in the 1810s which occurred in the Caribbean, Japan and the Phillipines. Since they also happened within a period of unusually low solar activity, these explosions caused a ‘volcanic winter’ that had enormous consequences across the world. Over the next few years, rather than the hoped-for years of stability and prosperity, our ancestors were to face dramatic cold wet weather, food shortages, famine and disease.

The Year Without a Summer (1816)

The most immediate effect of the eruption of Tambora for our ancestors would have been the deterioration in the weather. A veil of sulphur gases emanating from the volcano wrapped themselves around the planet and limited the amount of sunlight that reached the ground. Temperatures across the Northern hemisphere began to drop dramatically. The 1810s were already the coldest decade in memory, but in 1816 the weather in Britain took a dramatic turn for the worse.

Early 1816 ranks as one of the coldest periods in Britain since records were first kept in 1659. Average global temperatures decreased about 0.4 - 0.7 °C (0.7 - 1.3 °F) and the average temperature in London that year was just over 13 degrees centigrade. Far more than the usual amount of rain fell in the summer with Ireland experiencing persistent cold precipitation for 142 of the 153 summer days between May and September. Snow fell in London on April 14th and again on May 12th, and, as late as September, the lakes in the capital were frozen over. Crews on ships arriving in Britain in June spoke of sea-ice near the Faroe Islands and there were snowdrifts in the Lake District in July. The dismal summer was followed by a bitter winter.

Grain Shortages and Bread Riots

But, in 1816, poor weather may have been the least of our ancestors’ worries.  Crops could not grow in the low temperatures and the prolific rainfall caused what did sprout to rot before it could be harvested. There had been a number of poor harvests in the immediately preceding years, but this time, the consequences were worse: to put it plainly, Britain was in the throes of an unprecedented agricultural calamity.

Exacerbating the situation were the much-hated Corn Laws which had been enacted in 1815. These laws – which were essentially import tariffs on foreign grain -  limited what might have been an onslaught of cheap produce from abroad after the end of the embargo during the Napoleonic Wars. The prices of British grain were kept artificially high to protect the interests of British farmers. In fact, British grain prices doubled between 1815 and 1817 with the unfortunate result that the poor simply could not afford to buy bread.  Anger turned on those responsible for implementing the Corn Laws and on the rich members of local communities where the poor were suffering.

If your ancestor was a farm labourer left without employment due to the unseasonable weather or a soldier returning from the Napoleonic Wars without a job, he may have been one of the thousands across the country tempted to demonstrate outside grain markets and bakeries. Records from court Quarter sessions of the period (available to view in local record offices and searchable at www.nationalarchives.org) may show individuals on trial for rioting, arson, looting or worse.  

On the night of May 22nd and subsequent evenings, in Littleport and Ely (Cambridgeshire), for example, a large group of men rioted over low pay, breaking into the homes of wealthy people and demanding money. Over eighty men were arrested and, after a trial in the Ely courthouse in June 1816, several were executed, some imprisoned and some transported to Botany Bay. Robert Crabb aged 40, for example was convicted of stealing from Robert Speechley of Littleport. He went to Ely Gaol for one year. The more aggressive 21- year-old, Richard Jessop, was convicted of the burglary of Joshiah Dewey of Littleport and the robbery of William Cooper of Ely. He was deported to Botany Bay for life.

There were many other riots across the country in places such as London, Bridport, Bideford, Bury, Newcastle Upon Tyne, Glasgow, Preston, Nottingham, Merthyr Tydvil, Birmingham, Walsall and Dundee. The causes were, of course, complex and diverse. But the poor weather, failed harvests and food shortages certainly played their part.

Famine and Emigration

Bread riots in England, Scotland and Wales were nothing to the problems faced in Ireland. In 1816 and 1817, a state of near famine prevailed in the north and southwest following the failure of the wheat, oat and, significantly, the potato harvests. Potatoes were the staple food of the rural population of Ireland because this crop produced more food per acre than wheat and it could, therefore, be sold as a source of income. 

As a result of the poor harvest and famine, many of our ancestors chose the years immediately following the eruption of Tambora to emigrate. In Ireland, 6000 unemployed agricultural workers, demobilised soldiers and sailors set sail for America in 1816 and within two years this number had doubled. Some were tempted to go to New Brunswick and Quebec (in Canada) – because the cost of the passage was lower. Most, however – took advantage of the very cheap rate of passage to Liverpool and ended up as labourers or servants in England and Wales. To trace the emigration of your Irish ancestors to the United States at this time see emigration books for Irish Emigrants in North America at www.ancestry.co.uk.


If your ancestor died in 1816, or soon afterwards, consider the fact that his or her death might have been due to a disease that spread as a consequence of the food shortages and consequent vulnerability of the population.

In Ireland, a typhus epidemic between 1816-1819 killed – even by conservative estimates - at least 50,000 Irish people. Typhus, also known as ‘camp fever’, ‘famine fever’, ‘gaol fever’, ‘ship fever’, ‘war fever’, and ‘spotted fever’ is spread by a human body louse which flourishes in situations of squalor, and under-nourishment, especially where people are wearing the same clothing for lengthy periods. 

And typhus was not the only disease that can be indirectly attributed to the volcano at Tambora. Smallpox thrived in the conditions of close social contact and poor sanitation that existed in the depressed economic situation. In India, the delayed summer monsoon of 1815 had caused late torrential rains that helped the spread of cholera from a region near the River Ganges in Bengal. The disease travelled from India to Russia in 1817, reached Germany in 1830 and England in late 1831. Ireland was affected in 1832.

Finding out exactly how your ancestor died in the years before civil registration (1836) can be tricky; gravestones and parish burial records rarely record causes of death. But it is still possible to make an educated guess about your ancestor’s last illness. If you are searching burial registers, for example, look to see how many people in a particular village died at around the same time - unusually large numbers, suggest an epidemic. Local history books may also record the existence of an epidemic in an area at the time of your ancestor’s death.

Our early nineteenth century ancestors no doubt remained mystified by the downturn in the weather and their fortunes. In the days before the telegraph, word about what had happened in Indonesia travelled no faster than a sailing ship and in the absence also of sophisticated geological knowledge, few connected the eruption with what was happening in Britain. In 1815, most people knew nothing of the volcano on the other side of the world that was – in so many cases - indirectly responsible changing the direction of their lives.

The Eruption at Tambora

The eruption of Mount Tambora, located on Sumbawa Island, (which in 1815 was part of the Dutch East Indies) was the largest in recorded history (and probably for 1,600 years). An estimated twelve cubic miles of gases, dust and rock were injected into the atmosphere.  The effects on the local landscape and population were utterly devastating.Whole villages were wiped out as rivers of ash poured down the mountainsides and huge tsunamis were created which raced across the Java Sea. All vegetation on the island was destroyed, livestock perished and up to 12,000 people were killed by the intitial blast. The overall death toll has been estimated at (more than) 71,000 people most of whom died in the days and weeks after the eruption from starvation, disease and diarrhoea caused by the ash which had found its way into supplies of drinking water.

Useful Books

Dozier, Lou, The Story of the Year of Cold, Zerr Press, 2009.

Stommel. Henry and Elizabeth,  Volcano Weather: The Story of 1816 , the Year without a Summer, Newport RI. 1983.

De Boer, Jelle Zeilinga and Sanders, Donald Theodore, Volcanoes in Human History: The Far-Reaching Effects of Major Eruptions, Princeton University Press, 2004.

Harrison, Mark, Disease and the Modern World: 1500 to the Present Day, Polity Press, 2004

Useful Websites

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/blast.html?c=y&page=2 Geologist’s Account of a trip up Tambora in 2002.

http://wapedia.mobi/en/Volcanic_winter On the phenomenon of volcanic winters throughout history.

http://urbanrim.org.uk/diseases.htm Infectious diseases in history, their causes and effects.

http://www.btinternet.com/~strawson.online/riots/riot.htm For a full account of the Littleport riots and a list of all the rioters