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Beautifully illustrated family history books with a difference by a frequent contributor to the UK family history press. I write for Family Tree Magazine UK; Discover Your Ancestors Online Periodical and Bookazine; Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine. The publishers of my family history books are Pen and Sword Books and The History Press. I tweet (and retweet) thought-provoking content designed to help you tweak your approach to (your family) history at @RuthaSymes . Do follow me.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

How did your ancestors decorate for Christmas?

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Deck The Halls - Ancestor-style! 

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Greenery and fruit, sparkle and snow, colourfully-dressed tables and walls inscribed with Yuletide mottos - Christmases past were decorated using much the same general combination of ideas as Christmases today.  But the specifics of the way our ancestors decorated their homes at any given time in the past depended not only on tradition, but also on what was currently most novel and up-to-date.     

Yew, box and fir were all used to decorate the house at Christmas as  well as the more obvious holly, mistletoe and ivy. The Girl’s Own Paper, December 8th, 1888, Vol X, No.467

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, domestic and church decorations at Christmas tended to be simple and worked on the principle of bringing something of the outside world indoors. Our ancestors would decorate their lamps, candles and tables, very shortly before Christmas Day, with material such as holly, ivy, mistletoe and berries collected from hedges and winter gardens.  The candles (attached to the greenery with wax or pins) would be lit only on Christmas Eve to   minimise the danger of fire hazard). The Rev. James Woodforde, who kept a diary from the mid eighteenth century onwards, recorded that he filled his house with holly and lit a great wax candle especially for Christmas.  Fruit and vegetables, imported from overseas, or newly-grown in British hothouses, were considered decorations in and of themselves. The Market Post of December 25th 1848 noted that in Covent Garden that Xmas season, the  supply of pineapples, apples, pears, hothouse grapes, foreign grapes, walnuts, lemons and oranges was ‘seasonally good and sold readily.’

Victorian Christmas Postcard: Wikimedia Commons


A typical home at Christmas in the mid-Victorian period, would have been decorated to draw the eye towards the fireplace, which would have been ablaze with colour and sparkle. The popular installation of a Christmas tree in the domestic environment was widely attributed to a widely publicised etching of the Royal family at Christmas, complete with a tree (decorated with tinsel made from real shavings of silver) in the London Illustrated News of 1848. Mottoes or biblical quotations, with the individual letters cut out from paper and decorated with coloured rice or cotton wadding to imitate snow were often strung across the walls. Trees were decorated with ornaments made from lace, paper, scraps of newspaper and magazine illustrations.

Spurred on by the royal endorsement of Christmas, our Victorian ancestors proceeded to go decoration-crazy as the century progressed. As the  Supplement to the Sheffield and  Rotherham Independent of  Saturday December 24th 1881 commented, '(Christmas decorations) are no longer hung around a room haphazard - as pineapples, apples, holly bough here, a bunch of berries the, a trail of ivy elsewhere. They are carefully planned and artistically constructed.’  
Girl's Own Paper December 20th 1884, Vol VI, No.260.


An ancestor might have started preparing for Christmas many days or weeks before the event, and there was plenty of advice around to suggest just what tools he or she would need to make a good job of it:  ‘A good deal table to work upon is an essential; some stout brown carpet paper for cutting out letters or making backs for monograms and medallions; cardboard for suspended letters; wadding to imitate snow; strong twine; fine wire; a few old barrel-hoops; some whole rice uncooked; red sealing wax; spirits of wine; needles and woollen threads, scissors; hammers and tacks, are among the domestic trifles which come in usefully. Supplement to the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, December 24th, 1881.

By the end of the Victorian period, Christmas had become big business. Homemade decorations were supplemented in wealthier families by shop-bought items. The image of Father Christmas, as a prolific gift-giver - rather than simply in his old evocation as an expression of festive hospitality - appeared frequently in the press, on cards and other festive paraphenalia. New department stores across the country stocked up with the latest glass and lead toys and baubles many of which were manufactured in Germany, (though, even as early as the 1890s, some came from the East).  Conway, Jones and Co. of Northgate in Gloucester,   was typical of a small family-owned shop which boasted a Christmas window full of  ‘thousands of clever Japanese toys and novelties suitable for Xmas trees and bazaars, at 1 d each.'  The Citizen, December 18th 1897.



The boon in decorating for Christmas went on right through the Edwardian period at which time, every nook and cranny became a possible location for ornamentation: mantelpieces sported homemade convex wire cages, through which ‘the stalks of ../ flowers, holly, etc’ could be passed,’  trellis decorations surrounded doorways, wooden hoops trimmed with holly hung from ceilings, and (the middle-classes in particular) sought to outdo each other with decorated friezes and dado rails.

No longer were Christmas decorations confined to the home and church, now a vast array of public buildings were resplendently dressed for Christmas. Schoolrooms were festooned with chains of paper roses or coloured flags looped high across the room, or draped from the corners of the walls to a the centre point where they would be fixed to a hook or ceiling rose.  In 1916, despite the First World War, Walsall Hospital boasted a huge Christmas tree which ‘ stretched right up to the ceiling, with a lovely fairy doll at the top and hundreds of shining stars and balls hanging on it, as well as dozens of small trumpets and whistles.’


Wikimedia Commons


Christmas decoration in Britain continued to keep pace with international politics and technological developments. Unsurprisingly, the First World War (1914-1918) saw a huge drop in the sales of ornaments made in Germany.  In 1917, electric Christmas lights for Christmas trees were first on commercial sale (although they had actually been invented as early as 1880). The 1920s brought the invention of adhesive tape and artificial holly and mistletoe. Of the new imitation greenery, one lady correspondent eulogised to The Evening Telegraph, ‘they are very clever imitations and can scarcely be detected from the real thing.’ (20th December 1927).  Crepe paper (which had first appeared in Britain in the late nineteenth century) had its heyday in the twenties. It was perfect for Yuletide artistry since (as the same lady continued) ‘it was ‘obtainable in a multitude of colours and patterns… [was] tough and strong, [and] possess[ed] an elasticity which [was] ideal for the making of decorations.’

The difficulties of affording and sourcing luxury materials were everywhere apparent during the Second World War (1939-1945) and this was reflected in a move back towards a more natural kind of Christmas decoration in most British homes at this time. The Burnley Express and News commented grimly on December 27th, 1941, ‘Except for holly of course, of which there appeared to be quite a lot, Christmas decorations in the home were not on the same scale as in previous years, there being obvious reasons for this.’

Once the War was over, however, our ancestors returned to decorating their homes with renewed zest and an eye for modernity. Cellulose paper (first manufactured in Britain in the 1930s), was newly popular because it sparkled in firelight or electric light, artificial tinsel garlands were at the height of their popularity and aluminium Christmas trees arrived in 1955. Plastic novelty ornaments and tree decorations could be purchased cheaply from Woolworth’s (the American-owned emporium increasingly to be found on every British high street). The festive celebrations of the 1950s gave a focus for the mixture of nostalgia, patriotism, but most of all, the optimism, that characterised the decade.



Christmas, of course, is a peculiar time when we are wont to reflect that both everything and nothing remains the same.  It’s perhaps comforting to know that  our ancestors, like us, always welcomed the festive season by experimenting both with natural ingredients and traditional ideas, and with new materials and novel technologies. Long may it remain a magical combination!   

Useful Books
Mark Connelly, Christmas: A Social History, I.B. Tauris, rept., 2012.
E. G. Lewis, All Things Christmas: The History and Traditions of Advent and Christmas, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012.
Clement A. Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions, Their History and Significance,  Dover Publications, 1976.
Rev. James Woodforde, A Country Parson: James Woodforde’s Diary, 1759 -1802, Century, 1985.


This article first appeared in Discover Your Ancestors Online Periodical - December 2015.  http://www.discoveryourancestors.co.uk/

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Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Trace Ancestors Back Before the Victorians


How do you find out more about your family before 1837?


See my article in Dec 2017's Family Tree Magazine UK. Out Now!

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Thursday, 19 October 2017

Want to hear your ancestor's voice....?


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If only they could shout a little louder! Accessing how an ancestor might have spoken can be a difficult but rewarding task. 
Credit: Wood engraving. Wikimedia Commons

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could hear the voices of our ancestors? Not just second-hand through the anecdotes told about them by subsequent generations, but first-hand, just as they spoke? Sadly, despite a longish history of sound recording stretching back to the 1860s, recorded evidence of the voices of our ordinary ancestors is most unlikely to exist before the last decades of the twentieth century.

The First Recordings of the Human Voice

The first sound recordings of any kind were made in the very late 1850s. An organisation First Sounds (www.firstsounds.org) aims to have digitally preserved every ‘airborne sound recording’ known to exist from before 1861, as well as many subsequent early sound recordings. You can listen to some of these for free on its website. The earliest known recording of a human voice (made audible by this project in 2008) was created on April 9th 1860 and features Parisian bookseller and printer Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville singing ‘Au Clair de la Lune.’ Listen to it here.  https://www.youtube.com watch?v=uBL7V3zGMUA


The first machine capable of both recording and reproducing sound was the phonograph invented by Thomas Edison in 1877 (this image is probably from April 1878). The machine worked by producing a physical trace of the variations in audio-frequency created by the human voice on a wax cylinder.
Credit: Brady-Handy Photograph Collection (Library of Congress) via Wikimedia Commons  

I
t was extremely rare, however, for a human voice to be captured with any degree of clarity before the last decade of the Victorian period. At around this time, many well-known or significant people made recordings of their voices which can now be accessed through the video site You Tube (www.youtube.com/). These included the poets Robert Browning (1889) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OYot5-WuAjE), the actress Sarah Bernhardt (1903) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FjyB18FVGNc), and the German statesman Kaiser Wilhelm II  (1914) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eBKzCt-0DyY). It’s worth just tapping in a famous name from history on the You Tube site and seeing what comes up.

It’s possible, of course, that you might have fragments of recordings of the voices of ordinary people who lived in the twentieth century captured on telephone answering machines or office dictaphones. Another early method of voice recording  - the Voice-o-graph machine - was popular between the 1930s and the 1960s in fairgrounds, on piers and in amusement arcades. Users paid to enter a booth where they were encouraged to record themselves speaking or singing for up to two minutes. The subsequent recording was made into a disc of laminated cardboard six inches in diameter. This could then be mailed to friends or family as a sort of talking telegram or ‘audio postcard’ which could be played on the receiver's home record player. The discs were rather   flimsy and could only withstand a few playbacks. They were eventually superseded by the tape recorder  in the 1970s. For more detail see www.obsoletemedia.org/Voice-o-graph.

If (as is most probably the case) none of these kinds of records are available in respect of your family, there are, nevertheless, a surprising number of other ways in which you might get close to the sound of your ancestor’s voice.

Voices in Online Archives

You can get an approximation of how your ancestor might have sounded by listening to audio recordings of people who come (or came) from the same part of the country. The easiest way to access these is probably through the video site You Tube (www.youtube.com/). Just type in the kind of accent or dialect that you would like to hear and sit back and watch. 

It’s also worth checking if the local archives and County Record Offices in the places in which your ancestors lived hold any sound recordings made by them or (more likely) by people like them who lived in the same area, worked in the same industries or shared similar experiences (e.g. the closing of a factory, or the dropping of a bomb in WW2). You can search the holdings of archives across the country in the Discovery section of the website of the National Archives. http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/ 


Henry Wallace, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, using a dictaphone on 20th September 1937. Dictaphones (trademarked by the Columbia Graphaphone Company in 1907) were used in offices and courtrooms throughout the early part of the twentieth century until they were replaced by digital recording in the 1980s.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
One rich example of a locally-held sound resource is The Greater Manchester Sound Archive (http://www.archivesplus.org/news/greater-manchester-sound-archive/). You can listen to over 5,600 sound recordings on cassette, CD and via mp3 download at Central Library, Manchester at any time, and (by appointment) at other libraries around the Greater Manchester area. The ‘Oral Histories Collection’ includes stories of places, dialects, communities, immigration, war, pastimes and industries around Greater Manchester. Of particular interest are the Paul Graney Memory Tapes (collected by an amateur sound collector from the 1950s to the 1970s) which include interviews with prostitutes, the homeless, poachers, canal men and mill girls. 

The British Sound Archive (http://sounds.bl.uk)/ online includes over 50,000 (recordings selected from the entire collection of over 3.5 million sound records held in the British Library, London). In the Accents and Dialects section, you can listen to excerpts from the Survey of English Dialects (SED) which was conducted by researchers at the University of Leeds under Harold Orton between 1950 and 1961. People in 313 areas of Britain were interviewed; these were mainly men over the age of 65 in low-level occupations living in rural areas. A second area of interest might be the Oral History section which includes historical interviews on all sorts of subjects from food, to architecture to the steel industry with an important subsection that includes interviews with Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.

Another useful online resource is Soundcloud (https://soundcloud.com/). Various museums and historical institutions have uploaded material to this site. Simply type in the region or the subject in which you are interested in the search box and see if anything relevant comes up. A stunning example is a military man’s reminiscences of his time at Gallipoli https://soundcloud.com/archivesplus/fusilier-2  which has been uploaded by the Greater Manchester Sound Archive.  

Meanwhile, the Speech Accent Archive (http://accent.gmu.edu/ ) collects together thousands of accents in spoken English from around the world. This is a fascinating resource set up by Professor Steven Weinberger at George Mason University. Speakers have been recorded reading the extract below, which contains all the main sounds in English.

Please call Stella. Ask her to bring these things with her from the store: six spoons of fresh snow peas, five thick slabs of blue cheese, and maybe a snack for her brother Bob. We also need a small plastic snake and a big toy frog for the kids. She can scoop these things into three red bags and we will go meet her Wednesday at the train station.

If you know exactly where abroad your ancestor came from to the UK, you can tap in the place name,( and even refine your search by the gender and age of the speaker) in order to hear a person with similar characteristics speaking this paragraph. Alternatively, if you have a voice recording of an ancestor (or even just a memory of an ancestor’s voice), you can compare it with the store of accents on the site to determine which country (and even which part of a country) an ancestor might have come from!

Another useful tool when investigating accents and dialects from the past is the English Dialect App which is freely downloadable to both iPad and android devices. Answer the questions posed on the App and it aims to be able to pinpoint exactly where you come from in the country

The nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale made several voice recordings to raise money for the impoverished veterans of the Charge of the Light Brigade. One of these made on 30th July 1890 can be heard on www.youtube.co.uk and consists of the following lines: 'When I am no longer a memory - just a name, I hope my voice may perpetuate the great work of my life. God bless my dear old comrades of Balaclava and bring them safe to shore.'
Credit: Wikimedia Commons



Voices in Written Records

Sometimes, you might get a glimpse of what an ancestor sounded like from a written source, a letter or diary for example. On Thursday 17th March 1836, for instance, Queen Victoria recorded in her journal that ‘(Cousin) Ferdinand speaks through his nose and in a slow and funny way, which is at first against him, but it very soon wears off.’ At other points in the journal she refers to the ‘peculiarities of [Ferdinand’s] voice and manner of talking’ and his ‘merry funny voice.’ Such references in personal writing are more likely to occur, of course, if the person in question had a voice that was distinctive or unusual in some way.

Ancestors who turn up in newspaper reports (found, for example, by searching   www.britishnewspapersarchive.co.uk) are sometimes accompanied by written accounts of statements that they made. Likewise, defendants and plaintiffs in court records (to be found in local archives and County Record offices) might have had their words recorded. When, for example, working man and jury member Benjamin Gonalay was signed in as a jury member at a court in Shoreditch, London in August 1875, he was asked how he spelt both  his first name and his surname. He answered belligerently,  ‘How do I know? I tell you I can’t write. My son knows but he ain’t here. There’s only one way of spelling Benjamin.’ There is enough detail in this transcript of Gonalay’s voice in The Evening Telegraph for us to be able to sense something of his class status and his personality. The content of this particular example also reminds us that without such documentation of speech many illiterate people would be lost from history entirely.

A further offbeat way in which you might learn something about the way in which your ancestors spoke is by thinking a little about words and phrases that might have been passed down from them to the current generations of your family. The phrase ‘A dimple on the chin, the devil within,’ for example, is of Irish origin and may have come to Britain with immigrants in the mid nineteenth century.  For more on inherited phrases see my article ‘By Word of Mouth’ (http://searchmyancestry.blogspot.co.uk/search?q=by+word+of+mouth). The most interesting inherited phrases in your family will probably be those which describe the weather, eating or toileting habits, and often have a metaphorical  element.

The Voice of Queen Victoria

One of the most intriguing old sound recordings available for general consumption online today is a 20 second snippet recorded on a wax-coated cardboard cylinder (graphaphone) that purports to be of the voice of Queen Victoria. It is in fact, fairly certain that Queen Victoria allowed her voice to be recorded by solicitor Sydney Morse (who had distant connections with the pioneer of sound recording  - Alexander Bell), in an early experiment conducted at Balmoral in the autumn of 1888. What is less clear, however, is whether this recording found in the Science Museum, London, is the actual one.


Queen Victoria whose voice recording (apparently made in 1888) has intrigued and baffled historians.

Credit: From: Britain and Her Queen, by Anne E. Keeling http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/13103 via Wikimedia Commons



Whilst most of the recording consists of a poor crackling sound, there are listeners who have claimed that they can hear Victoria saying: ‘My fellow Britons,’ ‘Greetings, Britons and everybody,’  ‘The answer must be’ and ‘I have never forgotten.’ A grandson of Sydney Morse claimed to remember having heard the recording as a child and being able to make out the word ‘tomatoes’ – but, unfortunately, no subsequent listeners have been able to corroborate this! Perhaps you can do better? Why not listen to the recording yourself at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RVmf10OcVUQ

Find Out More

Paul Tritton. The Lost Voice of Queen Victoria: The Search for the First Royal Recording. London: Academy Books, 1991.

http://cadensa.bl.uk/cgi-bin/webcat Sound and Moving image catalogue at the British Library.


http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/6968321.stm How the BBC Sound Archive came into being.

http://www.charm.rhul.ac.uk/history/p20_4_1.html A Brief History of Sound Recording to 1950

http://www.recording-history.org/HTML/answertech1.php The history of the telephone answering machine.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dictaphone  History of the Dictaphone

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/11341071/Seven-unique-voices-saved-by-the-British-Library.html Listen to the voices of such historical figures as nursing pioneer  Florence Nightingale, suffragette Christabel Pankhurst, writer James Joyce, poet Alfred Lord Tennyson and actor Noel Coward.

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/in-search-of-queen-victorias-voice-98809025/ Article by Mike Dash on the early recording of Queen Victoria’s voice.

This article was first published in Discover Your Ancestors online periodical 2017.


My books provide similar creative approaches to family history

Link to buy all my books online UK http://amzn.to/2fDT1gJ


Link to buy all my books online USA  https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00LSGAMZS




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