I’ve been visiting the Midlands for the New Year and on the last day of 2015 I marked the occasion with a visit to the Wolverhampton City Archives.
I am so glad that I decided to see if they were open as I managed to discover something interesting about a person in my family tree that I didn’t know before then.
I had identified that a great-grand uncle of mine, Major Robert D D Hay, had become the Chief Constable of the Wolverhampton Borough Police in around 1866. In fact I had got the completely wrong dates for his tenure, but the knowledgeable staff in the archives were able to find me an entry in their catalogue for a newspaper report that put me on the correct track. The correct date was 1878 that he had been appointed to the job.
In the interest of discovering something about the Major’s wife I asked the archive staff if they had anything about Mary Hay, neé Corser, whom I believed may have been a local Wolverhampton girl. Entering her name they showed me entries that suggested that she may have been the daughter of a local solicitor and attorney called Charles Corser and another link that revealed the fascinating fact that she had founded a home in the late nineteenth century as a shelter for homeless girls where they could learn a trade.
The archive staff explained to me what the home was established for and it certainly made perfect sense for the wife of the Chief Constable to have founded the institution. The man behind the desk seemed himself to be intrigued to discover that the Mrs Hay, of the Mrs Hay Memorial Home for Friendless Girls, had been the wife of the borough’s chief policeman.
It turns out that the home had been set up by my Victorian middle-class great-grand aunt who, like many of her class, feared that prostitution, that was rife among the desperately poor working class women of the city, was in danger of undermining the fabric of their own level of society. This, they concluded, was because of the temptation prostitutes held for their own middle class men and so the solution they came up with was to take the girls off the streets and teach them a trade other than the oldest profession!
In my course on English/Welsh family history I always encourage those who want to discover more about their ancestors to explore the records that the county record offices and city archives have as many of their holdings have not made it online. While there certainly is a lot of records to explore online now, there are often some smaller collections that can help you find out more about your family. To find them you very often have to pay a visit to the repositories in the area that your ancestor lived in and ask the staff what holdings they suggest may help you find out more.
While I was in the City Archives I was also able to take a look at the original Chief Constable’s report to the Watch Committee. While it was a later book than my own ancestor had compiled, it still gave me a fascinating insight into the running of a Victorian police force and I felt privileged to be able to turn the pages of the old ledger and read about some of concerns of the Chief Constable. Within its pages were the names of various PCs on sick leave; the names of officers facing disciplinary proceedings and the recommendations (or otherwise) for lodging house licences and so on.
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