I’ve just been out of circulation for a couple of weeks. An elderly parent of mine has been very sick with a diagnosis that holds out little hope and so I did what any concerned son would do, I packed a bag and travelled home to be with them.
These days we have the luxury of fast travel – in my case it was a 50 minute flight from Jersey in the Channel Islands to East Midlands Airport, close to my parent’s place in North West Leicestershire.
But this got me thinking about how my ancestors would have coped in the circumstances. Some of them lived in Britain while their offspring had fled the coup to try their hand “Out East”, in Singapore, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and India.
It would have been a mammoth journey to get back to England by ship from these parts before air-travel had made it less time consuming. Even in the 1950s, when I am told my Dad flew back to Europe from Singapore, it was a long drawn out affair with several hotel stops on the way.
But what would the Victorians and Georgians have done? Well there was little alternative to booking a passage on a ship – and then it could be months to return to “Blighty”. This doesn’t even take into account the length of time for the sick message to have got out to them in the first place. In our modern world of communication and travel we just don’t realise how cut off some of our ancestors must have felt when their grownup children were off in another part of the world.
I’ve been looking at the passenger lists online this week and wondering what the stories were behind some of the reasons to travel that these folk had. There are several decades of outgoing passenger lists to be found on several websites including that of TheGenealogist, whom I write articles for on a paid for basis and so that is why I include a link to them. You may, of course, search other sources to find your forebears in the Board of Trade Passenger Lists and marvel at just how long it took the past generations to travel anywhere!
The most satisfying part of family history for me is when I can take some facts, that I have learnt from examining primary records, and then go and see where they took place.
This is often simplest for a baptism, wedding or funeral where the church remains standing to this day. Finding that my ancestor married and then had their child christened in a particular place may cause me to seek it out and lightly touch the font in a salute to my forebears who had gathered around it to watch the clergyman pour water over my ancestor’s head.
When I find out what an ancestor did for a living can equally have me making a trip to the place where they worked. This can be successful where, as in the case of a man who worked in the Royal Naval dockyards at Portsmouth, the buildings are still there and can be visited as a tourist attraction.
But it can also be disappointing when all trace of the former landscape has been obliterated by modern development on the site, as in the case of others of my ancestors’ places of employment – not to mention some of their homes.
What I like to do in this case is to see if I can make a visit to a museum that reflects the life of such an ancestor.
A visit to properties owned by The National Trust can reveal how your ancestors lived
Another excursion that I find useful is to visit several of The National Trust properties.
Hold on! I can hear people saying.
Surely the stately homes are only of interest to those who have aristocratic ancestors?
Well what about those of us that have identified ancestors that worked as staff for the ‘big house’? Some houses allow you to see ‘below stairs’, as well as the fine rooms up above.
For those of us that have found ancestors that had to enter the workhouse then a visit to The National Trust’s fine example at Southwell, that I have written about before in a post about workhouse ancestors.
On a recent visit to Birmingham I was able to take a tour around The National Trust’s Back to Back houses. These guided tours take you around the carefully restored, atmospheric 19th-century courtyard of working people’s houses.
These homes had windows only on one side as they were built, as the name implies, back to back with each other. To the rear was a courtyard that also housed the laundry and the outside toilets for up to 60 people to use!
What is fascinating, for family historians, is that the first house is dressed to reflect the 1840s. With tallow candles for light, no running water – requiring the teenage daughter to walk ten minutes to the nearest well pump carrying heavy wooden buckets. In this the house of a jeweller and his family we can get an idea of what life was like at the time of the 1841 census for working people that had moved to the cities to find a living.
Another of the houses reflected the 1870s and although they now used oil lamps and had a communal tap in the courtyard, and the outside privy now flushed rather than being an earth closet relying on the night soil men to carry away the human waste, times were still hard.
Upstairs the four sons slept ‘top and tail’ in a bed. A rough curtain slung across a rope divided the room so that another bed could be rented out to a lodger.
As if this lack of privacy was not enough, in the 1871 census it seems to identify that the house had a second lodger. The suggestion is that the male and female lodgers may well have been ‘hot bedding’ where one person has the use of the bed for the day, while the other for the night!
Theses types of windows into our past can really make us think about how our ancestors lived. It also brings home how rich we are now in the Western world that we are fascinated by the hardships of everyday life that our forebears simply took as normal. By using the records that are available to us and then relating them to conditions, that we can learn from studying the social history, enables us to build a better family story.
You can learn where to find the records that reveal your ancestors’ lives by taking the English/Welsh family history course. Read more here:
These knowledgeable interviewees include practising professional genealogists, with years and years of experience to offer.
Yet others are from the very highest levels of the online data provider companies, like Ancestry and TheGenealogist.
Listen to the download and learn some plain tips that will simplify the often confusing business of researching English/Welsh ancestors. I am going to give you access to these eight professionals so that you can use their advice to break down several brick walls that you may have.
3. The Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives (AGRA) Member. What would the advice be from a professional genealogist practitioner?
Well as many serious professional genealogists belong to this association, I headed over to the AGRA stand and asked a member for his research tips. Points he brought up included the information on documents being only as good as that given by the informant and what to do about conflicting data. There is more to hear in the full interview that you can download here .
4. Families in British India Society (FIBIS) Expert. In family history we often have to think a bit outside the box. Well have you considered that your missing ancestor had moved abroad? With 3 million Brits having gone out to India then if we have a missing forbear it could certainly pay us to take a look at the records from this part of the British Empire. Its not just soldiers, the list of people who went out to work there is long as we hear from this FIBIS expert.
5. Celia Heritage – Professional Genealogist, Author and Family History Teacher introduces us to an often under used set of resources in her piece: Death Records. She explains how to use these records to flesh out the bones of our ancestors lives.
Celia is an excellent and knowledgeable speaker and you can just hear the passion that she has for her subject as she dispenses some gems of advice in the free downloadable audio presentation. Its not just death certificates that Celia brings to our attention in this part of the recording!
6. Dr Ian Galbraith – The National Wills Index explains about one of the best single major sources for family historians when I asked him to talk about Wills and Administrations for this audio.
Ian explains why wills can be an important resource with an average of 10 names per will and with half of them being different from that of the testator. Many people are surprised by the fact that all sorts of people left wills, but you won’t be when you have heard the full interview.
7. Brad Argent – Content Director for Ancestry advises family historians to drill down for the information in the online databases in his contribution to the recording. Brad suggests we use the card catalogue to seek out data sets and then use the advance search facility of “exact”, “soundex” and “wildcards” when we are on this large data provider’s site. His advice is compelling.
8. Mark Bayley – Head of Online Content at TheGenealogist, a site that gives really fantastic value and a very wide range of data, introduces us to a great name-rich resource recently published by TheGenealogist, in association with The National Archives.
What is this important resource for England and Wales?
It is, of course, the Tithe collection.
I have been using this set recently to great effect with my own rural ancestors and so I have included a module in my Family History Researcher Guides about the tithes.
The beauty of this data is that it includes both sides of society, with landowners and tenants being recorded and giving names and addresses. As a pre-census data set it is hugely valuable to us! Listen to Mark explain about these exciting records in the free recording you can download now by clicking the link below.
Now you may be asking why I am doing this for free?
Its because I want to introduce you to a set of guides that I have put together. A series of pdf modules that takes the information I gleaned at Who Do You Think You Are? Live and incorporated it, along with much more content into a year’s worth of weekly written guides.
There are extra contributions from various other professional experts who have penned some of the reports, as well as those modules written from my own extensive experience.
I am guessing that, if you have read this far, you are interested in English/Welsh family history and that you have hit at least one of the inevitable brick walls. The solution is to understand more ways to find your ancestors.
So if you would like to dramatically increase your knowledge then I think you will enjoy being a member of my Family History Researcher Guides. This is a 52 weekly series of guides written in an easily accessible form and you can take a two week trial for just £1 by going here:
When we consciously decide to do Family history, as opposed to Genealogy, we set out to flesh out our ancestors lives a bit. We do this by seeking to understand what they did for a living, what the environment in which they lived and worked in was like and the social conditions that prevailed on them at the time.
My Devon ancestors are a mixture of Agricultural Labourers, Mariners, Small Businessmen and the like. Their work is very often dictated by where they lived. The countryside dwellers in and around Bigbury and South Huish worked on the land. Those that inhabited Dartmouth made a living on the river and at sea while those from Plymouth ran shops and small businesses. Not surprisingly none of them were coal miners or textile mill workers.
At the Society of Genealogists (SoG), in London, there is a good amount of material to help family historians research ancestors occupations and much of it is to be found in the Upper library at 14 Charterhouse Buildings. Although not all the material is exclusively on that floor, it is a good place to start as Else Churchill, the Genealogist at The Society of Genealogists pointed out in a talk I attended there last year.
With the “Ag Labs”, as we have come to call our Agricultural Labourers after the 1841 census introduced this shorthand way of describing them, there is a book that can be purchased from the SoG shop called My Ancestor Was an An Agricultural Labourer which explains what their lives were like and points the reader towards some source material that could be used apart from the census data.
Returning to the question in the headline of this article: What Did Your Ancestors Do? Finding the answer to this question will probably depend on what status they were and what and when they carried out their trade, profession or calling.
As some professions and crafts became more regulated then lists of those qualified to make a living from the activity will have thrown up records. Family historians can have recourse to Trade Directories, Apprenticeship lists and so on to try and find their forebears. Professional men, such as Medical men and Lawyers are going to be better documented than others. The SoG have extremely good runs of lists for these professions as well as those, such as Chemists and Apothecaries, who modelled their professional standards on the former class of practitioners, with the sanction of being struck off from the register to practice.
The Law list’s at the SoG include Barristers, London Attorneys and Provincial Attorneys back into the eighteenth century. The medical directories only really start in the 1850’s with the formal registration of these professions but I did find in their catalogue A directory of English country physicians 1603-43.
Men who were Officers in the Army or Navy can be found in the run of military lists on the upper library floor along with a great collection of Regimental Histories and Medal Rolls.
Some enlisted men can be located by using the Findmypast Chelsea Pensioner 1760 to 1913 data set and the Militia Service Records 1806-1915. Look in the county record office for the Ballot Lists of those men eligible to serve in the local militia from the 1750’s to Napoleonic times (1799 to 1815).
What if your ancestor went into trade by serving an apprenticeship? Else Churchill, explained that apprenticeship records are better documented before 1800 than after. A tax levied in the 18th century caused records to be kept and they are to be found today at the National Archives IR1 series and they are indexed by the SoG and can be found in books in the upper library. Another database is on Ancestry. The SoG has another excellent book called My Ancestor was an Apprentice which may help.
If your ancestors served an apprenticeship in one of the larger towns, or boroughs, in order to become a freeman and gain the entitlement to vote, then look for the records for the town/borough at the county record office. Ms Churchill pointed out that the more likely scenario would be that your ancestor would have served their apprenticeship within a family and there would be no record as the tax was not applicable within a family apprenticeship.
A possible record that may be found is where a child is apprenticed by the parish to make them less of a burden on the parish. Typically the age of the apprentice is much younger (7 or 8yrs old) and husbandry or housewifery. If the records survive they will be in the Parish Chest material.
This is only a short look at this subject and I will return to it in a further article here.
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