Category Archives: Family History

The Changing Landscape of Family History

I’m feeling a little lost. This is the time of year when my thoughts would be turning towards planning my ‘Who Do You Think You Are? Live’ adventure. But, as was announced last year, this is a show that won’t go on. Yes, the writing may have been on the wall with the massed ranks of so-called chuggers, aka charity muggers, in evidence last year. Stand space was expensive making it difficult for genuine family history organisations to have a presence. Even The National Archives gave it a miss. Is this a sign the popular interest in family history research has plateaued and is perhaps on the decline?

And, dare I say it, maybe the TV show ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ has struggled occasionally with who it thinks it is in recent series. Yes, there are some gems of episodes. But it doesn’t seem to hold the same thrall of its early days. The BBC have also seemed happy to tinker with scheduling, to the detriment of viewing continuity, possibly an indication of where it now stands in their pecking order. No longer a flagship viewing offering? But is that in part because the format needs a shake-up?

Also has the series encouraged the belief family history is quick and easy? The big Internet and associated ‘it’s all a mouse-click away.com’ con, which in turn fostered the ‘fast-food family historian’ in us all to some extent. That attitude led to some of the more informative talks at last year’s ‘Live’ show, such as ones about genealogical proof, being a step too far for some of the audience. It’s too much like hard work, all this checking, corroborating and building a body of evidence.

I personally feel the absence of a national show has left a huge void in the British family history calendar of events. But maybe that’s because I’m a tad family history research obsessed. I’m going to miss its social aspect, the chance to see what’s out there beyond my own family history interests, the informative talks to improve my skill set, not to mention the opportunity to grab a book bargain or subscription discount. I’m seeking out alternatives, from the ‘Secret Lives’ conference to local and regional events and talks. One source to find out what’s on is GENEVA, an online calendar of GENealogical EVents and Activities.

On the same era-ending theme, earlier this month the final edition of ‘Your Family History’ magazine plopped on my doormat. Or should I say I dashed to the newsagent to buy my final copy, as my subscription expired the previous month and no reminder to renew was sent? For 15 years, initially under the title of ‘Your Family Tree’, it has provided information, advice and tips for the family history community from beginner to the more advanced. But time has been called on the publication. Reasons cited for its demise included rising costs and competition from the Internet. This competition presumably extends to digital media, blogs, podcasts and the like. But again I’m left wondering if the appetite for family history research has levelled out.

The family history landscape is changing. In reality it has always been a constant evolution. But the Internet is the real game-changer in recent years, considerably speeding up the process.

I started my family history journey probably just after the launch of ‘Your Family Tree’ (as it was called then). Back then it was old fashioned painstaking research methods. None of this ‘everything only a mouse click away’ belief, too often implicitly peddled by T.V. programmes and family history subscription sites now. Online subscription-based genealogy database services were in their infancy. IGI and FreeBMD were my high-tech, online ports of call. Microfiche and microfilm readers, Family History Societies and visits to local libraries and archives provided my gateway.

I well remember the days of going to my local library and scrolling through the census. Ditto for parish registers. I’d even plan holidays to visit archives in family associated locations in order to fit in a few hours research. This for basic record sets like the census or parish registers, things we take so much for granted today. Hard to imagine, but it wasn’t online and neither did it come automatically with a helpful searchable index. If you were lucky the local Family History Society might have compiled an index booklet. Or maybe an antiquarian publication had reproduced them. But, as the Family History Society exhorted, you still needed to check the original document.

But in the main you were ‘indexless’, and it was the long job of scrolling through filmed copies of the census, or going through the parish register microfiche by microfiche noting down all occurrences of family surnames. And maybe repeating the process, as research turned up a new surname to track in the same parish….several times over. But that way, you did get to familiarise yourself with the records, the community in which your ancestors lived and the writing!

It’s hard to imagine that this was how we did family history only a few years ago. Today, subscription genealogy services are in constant competition to get the next big dataset online. This is today’s gateway to family history. Yes, it is brilliant there is so much out there to tempt people into the wonderful world of family history. It’s making family history more accessible. And it can save masses of time in travelling up and down the country on archives visits. But in the race to get it all online, clear source referencing along with precise coverage dates, seems to have been dismissed. For instance the unwary may assume Ancestry’s West Yorkshire Parish Register collection includes all parishes. It doesn’t. But finding out what is there, and the years covered, is not an easy task. And transcribing errors may in turn lead to false negative results.

In a way it’s become too big, too unwieldy and the race to ‘chuck stuff online’ has meant it’s been too organisationally chaotic. For many there’s that initial flurry of interest, but it all tails off. And make no wonder people give up. It can be like plaiting fog. Especially when you don’t fully understand what’s there in the first place. I’ve heard people admit to it. They start off enthused but then they soon find it all too overwhelming and lose track (and interest) in what they’re doing.

In a way, the Internet may have curiously decreased knowledge too. There doesn’t seem to be the same willingness to trawl through a parish register, the Quarter Sessions or a Borough Court register to check for yourself. It’s too much like hard work. Yet there are times when this is necessary. For many it now needs to be the quick click, instant gratification of an online search and move on without evaluating whether it’s right or wrong. And hey presto I’ve got a tree going back to 1066!

A corollary is because so few are prepared to put in this painstaking work, the amount of time it takes is not appreciated. For so many there’s no interest in finding out about the variety of records, what they can and can’t do, what pitfalls there are, and what alternative sources exist to plug gaps. Which is why the demise of knowledge-bringing magazines such as ‘Your Family History’ is such a loss.

I’m forever seeking out information and knowledge to develop my family history skills: be it reading, both online and traditional books and magazines, as well as attending talks, webinars, podcasts and formal learning courses. I’m currently signed up to a series of Guild of One Name Studies monthly webinar. There are so many sources of learning out there if you look. And by doing them and improving your knowledge, you’ll be amazed how much you learn which in turn will lead to more accurate family trees, and hopefully breakthroughs. But that’s the point: you have to know the limitations of online sources and actively seek out knowledge beyond the confines of your computer. And by seeking out this wider knowledge you become more acutely aware of the computer pros and cons.

And yet there still seems to be only a passing realisation that not everything is on the internet. There is so much more in archives waiting to be explored. Much of it will never make it onto these online providers such as Ancestry, FindMyPast or The Genealogist because it is not commercially viable. Who for instance would be interested in churchwarden accounts, Vestry minutes, charity records, manorial documents and the like for some obscure location? But often these documents may help prove a link.

Bottom line, these companies are only interested in what makes money. After the 1921 census, what will they use to generate income and fresh interest? Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why price structures are amended; why Ancestry is putting its more recently acquired UK military datasets not on Ancestry.co.uk but on sister-company Fold3, in order to get another subscription stream; and why there is such a push on DNA testing as an alternative cash-cow. I’m not against DNA testing per se. It has a place. It is another tool. But there is perception peddled that it’s a quick root to a fully formed family tree, with no research required.

By the same token cash-strapped Councils, looking to make savings, are cutting back archives opening hours, or even closing them, because so much is online. Read the same for local libraries. It’s an easy excuse for them to use in order to reduce costs. And so it’s all online becomes a self-perpetuating myth.

Which is why I think David Olusoga’s recent BBC2 series ‘A House Through Time’ was such a refreshing change. Not only was it interesting, engaging and informative, it was a new way to introduce people to family history. It didn’t propagate the ‘it’s all online’ impression. And it wasn’t afraid to admit some people were difficult to trace and the trail went cold. Hopefully it has reached out to, and inspired, a new set of family historians, those seekers and keepers of documented, accurate ancestral truth, memories and knowledge.

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The Accidental Blogger – My 2017 Review

My 2017 blogging year didn’t go quite as planned. Two posts a month was what I promised. And with 33 for the year I ever so slightly overachieved. So unplanned in a positive way. This number was down significantly on my 2016 total of 60+ posts, but deliberately so. I continue to enjoy researching and writing. I also find the process helps me to focus on, and review, my personal family history research. But keeping volume up, alongside quality and interest, is a tricky balance. Hopefully I achieved that balance in 2017.

I accidentally stumbled into this blogging lark. My blog started in April 2015. In those first nine months it had a tad over 2,900 views. In 2016 it grew to 12,163. So how does 2017 compare?

The Headlines: Despite the reduced output my blog did not suffer. It had 20,649 views. I feel slightly giddy and ever so grateful that folk actually looked at my random stories and thoughts about family and local history. In 2015 I averaged roughly about 322 views per month. In 2016 this grew to over 1,000 per month. Roll forward to 2017, and it achieved over 1,700 per month.

My Best Day: 28 July 2017 had an amazing 662 views. For hard-core bloggers that’s not many, but I feel hugely privileged so many people took the time out to engage. Sunday is now my most popular day, with 22% of views. And, once more, the golden hour is 8pm.

How Did They Find You? Facebook was the primary referrer with over 5,000 clicks leading to my site. Search Engines accounted for almost 4,000.

Where Did They Come From? The global reach of WordPress continues to astonish, with views from around 80 countries. Unsurprisingly, as I’m based in England, over 13,000 were from the UK. Almost 4,000 reached me from the USA. But I had views as far afield as Rwanda, Fiji, Venezuela, Albania and Lebanon (one from each of those countries). So if you’re reading this a huge thank you!

I also loved reading the comments I’ve received indirectly via Facebook and Twitter, or directly on my blog site. Some of these have resulted in new direct family history connections with distant cousins. Others have been from descendants of those named in my research. Again, thank you for getting in touch.

Top Five Posts of 2017: Other than general home page/archives and my ‘about‘ page, these were:

  • Access to Archives – What Price and at What Cost? This was my reaction to the news that Northamptonshire Archives proposed introducing charges to visit, alongside a reduced number of free access hours. The fact this post received over 1,500 views is testimony to the concern felt throughout the academic and family history communities about this development. The proposal was thankfully shelved. But it shows the ongoing issues we face with access to archives at a time when Councils are facing difficult choices about their priorities in a climate of tight funding.
  • Buried Alive: A Yorkshire Cemetery Sensation had almost 1,000 views, with its multiple stories of people ‘rising from the dead’. It included a particularly macabre tale from Leeds, with a gravedigger seemingly ignoring knocking from a coffin. It goes to show that the Victorian fear and obsession with premature internment still holds a fascination today.
  • General Register Office (GRO) Index – New & Free was actually posted in 2016. But in 2017 it had a resurgence, with its close to 800 views more than doubling its 2016 tally. This post was about a new free source for searching the GRO birth and death indexes (note not marriages) for certain years, one which gives additional search options. It also covered the initial £6 PDF certificate trials. There is currently an extended pilot running for these £6 PDFs, which I blogged about here.
  • Living DNA: I’m Not Who I Thought I Was dealt with my latest shocking DNA results. I’m 100% from Great Britain and Ireland. No drama there. But imagine the horror this Yorkshire lass felt to discover she has genetic material from the dark side of the Pennines. I did try to kid myself that it couldn’t possibly be Lancashire blood. But a discovery last month via traditional family history research seems to confirm the accuracy of LivingDNA’s results. It points to a 5x great grandmother from Colne. How could my mum inflict this on me?
  • A Dirty Tale from a Yorkshire Town had just shy of 600 views. The 1852 inquiry into sanitation in Batley proved to be a fascinating peek into the lives of our ancestors, their struggles to obtain drinking water, the issues of sanitation in an increasingly urbanised area, the problems with disposing of the dead and the knock on health effects, with frequent epidemics. All illustrated with examples from the town. Despite the grim and dry(?) subject, the post clearly whet the appetite for this type of local context to family history.

So a real mix of posts ranging from topical family history issues, to DNA and general history and local history tales. This snapshot really sums up what my blog is about. A bit of my family history, interspersed with general genealogical topical updates, and a smattering of local history posts about the lives and times of my ancestors and the communities in which they lived.

The Ones that Got Away: These are a few of my favourite posts which didn’t make the top five:

  • Death by Dentition looked at teething as a cause of infant death in the 19th century. This research was promoted by the discovery of my 3x great grandmother’s youngest daughter’s death in 1870.
  • Batman – My Family History Super Hero uncovered the extraordinary persistence of my aged Irish great grandad in trying, and lying, to enlist to serve in the Great War not once, not twice but three times. I discovered his final attempt in 1918 was to join the newly formed RAF. So he, not his grandson (my dad) was the first to serve in that branch of the military.
  • In my commitment to the role of libraries in the community, I shared my thoughts on their importance in A Library is Not a Luxury but One of the Necessities of Life.
  • I also wrote about a couple of murders with local connections. One remains unsolved. Cold Case: The Huddersfield Tub Murder involved a woman of ‘ill-repute‘ whose tragic life and abusive relationships ultimately resulted in her death. The other, Mother-in-Law Murderer, was a tale of poisoning which resulted in the hanging of a Batley woman in 1794.
  • Finally, if you want to discover a claim to Brontë fame, check out Finding Your Brontë links.

What Does 2018 Promise? Well, as in 2017, I aim to do two posts a month. I’ve lots of ideas for these, including some in-depth research pieces. In this centenary year of the Armistice, some will definitely have a Great War theme. Others will have a more general family or local history context. And, of course, there will be the occasional topical offering when something big hits the genealogy news. Hopefully these topics remain relevant and interesting, but any other suggestions would be welcome.

The big question, as ever for me, is time. 2018 promises to be a busy year personally and professionally. This may impact on my blogging output, as I do need to focus on my family history client research work, the final year of my assessed genealogy course and my book. I’ll have to see how it pans out.

But whatever my blogging year holds, thank you for reading, engaging and supporting.

Wishing you a happy, peaceful 2018 filled with family history fun!

2018 Family History New Year’s Resolutions (Otherwise Known as Rewarding Challenges)

Well it’s that time of year again. In my penultimate post of last year I assessed how my 2017 New Year’s Resolutions went. In my final post of the year I set out some general family history related suggestions for 2018 for those seeking ideas. So now to look forward and set my own goals for the New Year.

I’m sticking to just five ‘challenges‘ once more. They are a balance of personal, professional and wider family history objectives. And they do, in part, link to some of the suggestions I posted yesterday.

Work on my Aveyard One-Name Study (ONS): Yes, that hardy perennial which had very stunted growth in 2017. I will spend more time on it in 2018, says I through gritted teeth. It’s not that I don’t like doing the work, it’s just I never get time. And because it’s a relaxed, gentle-paced kind of hobby, it’s the one which is easier to knock on the head when other areas of life and work pick up speed. So in an effort to kick-start it, I may in part combine it in part with Resolution Number Two.

Complete my Pharos Tutors Family History Skills and Strategies (Advanced) Course: I’m now into Year Two of the eight module course. This year I have my final three modules and assignments. I also must undertake a pre-19th century Project. I’m currently finalising my research proposal, and I’m hoping to frame it in such a way to fulfil some personal family history research, or link it to my ONS. Either way the course will provide me with an excuse to do some of my own research for a change, whilst at the same time being part of my Continuing Professional Development.

Finish my Book Research: This was a ‘bolt from the blue‘ piece of work which hit me in 2017. Alongside my husband I have wandered into a publishing contract. The book is due out later in 2018 and my research is well underway. I aim to complete the bulk of the remaining research by early March. I’ve already set aside January to focus on it, in between my Pharos Medieval Genealogy module. After that, it’s just dotting ‘i’s’ and crossing ‘t’s’ for me. Luckily for me the writing part is down to the other half.

Personal Research: Some ancestors are sent to test us. One of my trials is my 4x great grandfather Abraham Marshall. He’s an hiding-in-plain view type of chap. One of those ancestors I put aside as I couldn’t find an obvious family for him. In theory he should be straightforward. I just need to put in some effort, something I’ve never found time to do. It may involve an element of family reconstitution and lateral thinking. So 2018 is the year in which I will put in that effort and marshal my Marshalls, so to speak. We’ll see how it goes.

Attend a mixture of Conferences, Lectures, Family and Local History Fairs and Talks: The demise of ‘Who Do You Think You Are? Live’ leaves a major gap in the genealogy calendar. But there is so much more out there. It is an opportunity to connect with other events, including those organised by that backbone of grassroots genealogy, the Family History Society. I’m going to commit to attending a minimum of six events over the course of 2018. I’ve already signed up for a major genealogy event, the Secret Lives conference. Organised by the Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives (AGRA), The Guild of One Name Studies, the Halsted Trust and the Society of Genealogists, it runs over three days in late summer. But I will also mix it up with smaller scale local events and talks. Family history can so often be a solitary interest, where you find yourself either tucked away in a local archive or at home behind the computer screen. Often, in pursuing our family history goals, we overlook the value of connecting with others who share our passion. And in doing so we overlook the value of our local Family History Societies. So I’m making 2018 my year of championing the work of local history groups and Family History Societies. Starting with the Huddersfield and District Family History Society January sale: Parish Register index booklets for £1, CDs at £5 and census CDs £5 too, plus p&p. That’s my kind of sale!

So just five New Year’s Resolutions for 2018. But I’m pretty relaxed about them as, from the experiences of this year, life can throw the unexpected at you. What you want to achieve evolves and changes as the year progresses. Some new opportunity may mean a shift in priorities. And family history is meant to be fun, not some rigid tick-box exercise.

Whatever your family history aims and hopes are for 2018, I wish you have a rewarding and interesting New Year. But above all I’m wishing you peace, health and happiness, because that’s what really counts.

Word Tree by Jane Roberts using http://www.wordclouds.com

My Top 12 Family History Suggestions for the New Year

As the year closes, here are 12 Family History suggestions for you to consider in 2018. 12 as in one per month. Or maybe because I simply couldn’t whittle them down to 10. You can judge!img_4905

  1. Review your research. Often research is ‘completed‘ and then shelved for years or possibly for ever, even if there are gaps. It does pay though to periodically revisit your research. What might have seemed a dead-end 12 months ago, may no longer be the case. A new record set, an additional piece of information gleaned through researching another family member, or even your own improved research techniques – all these can mean a brick wall is ready to come crashing down.
  2. Join a Family History Society. These organisations are the bedrock of family history up and down the country. They offer a wealth of help, advice and local knowledge. They also provide opportunities to meet with others sharing the same passion for, what can be, a solitary pursuit.
  3. Visit an archive. Contrary to what may appear to be the case, not everything is online. Far from it. And even what is there is not perfect. The indexing may leave something to be desired. Or the source citation may be so unclear as to mislead. One of the simple pleasures of family history research for me is physically connecting with original source material. To hold a document from a bygone era, possibly centuries old, and realise you’re touching something created by people long since gone. All the more special if, within that document you discover your ancestor’s name.
  4. On the same lines, check out your local library. They may have lots of free resources to help you with your family history research. From local newspapers on microfilm, to electoral registers, donated research, council minutes, medical officer of health annual reports, school yearbooks and magazines. The may have censuses, and microfilm or microfiche copies of parish registers. Many have free computer access to Ancestry or FindMyPast. So get down to your local library. You may be pleasantly surprised what’s there.
  5. Talk to relatives. They are living connections with the past, often too easily ignored whilst you pursue your paper trail. My dad died this year. Even though I did quiz him about the past, it’s only now he’s gone that I realise there’s so much more I wished I’d asked him. A few years ago I gave dad a book to fill in about his life. He never did it. So talk to your relatives whilst you have the chance.
  6. Do a family history course or webinar. Anything really to improve your skills. It doesn’t need to cost much. There are lots of free tutorials. Check out The National Archives events – they do some really good free online webinars. FindMyPast also do them. Your local Family History Society may run courses too. But ultimately your research techniques, and results, will benefit from it.
  7. If you do a DNA test, and if you are able to, please Please PLEASE include a tree. Even if it’s only a skeleton tree with a few direct line ancestors. There are so many treeless DNA testers, and it’s so frustrating trying to work out what the connection is between you and them. Yes there are ways and techniques to try to work round this. But it’s so long-winded and speculative. It’s far easier if at the outset there are some family names to work with. So if you received a DNA test this Christmas, besides the initial excitement of spitting or swabbing, do take a bit of time to upload a tree. By doing so you may get more potential DNA matches contacting you too.
  8. Check out #AncestryHour on Twitter. Tuesday’s at 7pm-8pm (GMT). Lots of fast-paced, fun, friendly family history chat, tips and plenty of opportunity to ask questions. More details are here. Starts again on 9 January 2018.
  9. If you do have a public tree on Ancestry, review it to make sure it’s accurate. And if you’re new to family history and looking at these public trees don’t take them as gospel. Do your own research and checking. So many of these things are blindly copied perpetuating the myth that 95 year old 3x great auntie Ann gave birth to twins!
  10. A bit long term, and on a less cheery note: what will happen to all your painstakingly researched family history once you’re gone? Will it end up in the bin? Start thinking now about how it will be preserved. Is there someone in the family to pass the baton on to? If not, is there another option?
  11. Photographs. A dying art in this digital age. I can’t remember the last time I put a family photo in an album, never mind label the names. They’re all on my phone, FaceBook, or when I get round to it, on my computer. So perhaps devote some time to putting a few key family photos (with names) in an album for future generations. Perhaps I’m showing my age and technophobe side here?
  12. Make 2018 the year when you better organise your family history research. Note sources in full. Note negative searches. Note dates searches were conducted. Write up research, and file it, at the time you do the work – not six months later when you’ve not a clue what paper is where, let alone what your scribbled note says and anyway it’s now all too overwhelming to sort out.montage

Whatever you do with your family history quest in 2018, enjoy it! I’ll publish my own New Year’s Resolutions tomorrow.

My 2017 Family History Review – Life Got in the Way

It was a year which didn’t quite go as planned. It was a year full of heartache, but punctuated with moments of real joy and achievement. All of this impacted on my New Year’s Resolutions for 2017.

I had set myself five goals, but personal issues meant a major switch of focus. Mid-year both my husband and father had significant health problems resulting in lengthy hospitalisation for both. Then followed an even lengthier period of recuperation for my husband. Dad however lost his long battle with cancer. Genealogy took a back seat.

Going Forward but Looking Back: Snowflake and me – Photo by Chris Roberts

Given what happened I’m really satisfied with how I fared with my New Year’s Resolutions. My assessment of these are below.

Aveyard One-Name Study: Data collection is still ongoing in fits and starts. I did say I would be doing it at a relaxed pace, fitting it in and around. As things turned out it was more relaxed than anticipated. It was one of the non-essential pieces of work and, as a result, was one thing which ground to a halt when real life kicked in. I’m still working through the censuses.

Healey War Memorial Project: Names were quickly collected but again, because this was non-essential in the grander scheme of things as the year progressed, it has taken a back seat. And then my husband hi-jacked me for a different Great War project which has taken priority. More of that in my 2018 Resolutions.

Blog Posts: Through it all I’ve kept on blogging, averaging at just over two posts a month. So target met. I’ll do my annual blogging review shortly.

Palaeography Practice: Again another Resolution I’m happy with. The fact I signed up to a palaeography course with Pharos helped. I now enjoy transcribing. It’s my take on code-cracking. I need to keep practicing though. My archives visits certainly help.

Personal research into my brush maker ancestor, an asylum inmate, an army officer and two wills: I intended setting aside July to do this. For obvious reasons it never happened. However, I did manage to do a fair amount of the work later in the year by fitting it into an assessed genealogy assignment. I have a couple of loose ends to tie up, one of which involves a visit to the Borthwick Institute. But for all intents and purposes the work is done, and more besides. Although, as with much in family history, one brick wall broken leads to several more to crack.

Given the circumstances of the year, three out of five isn’t bad.

In other news, I am a civil servant no more. This has given me more time to devote to family history. I passed Year One of my Pharos Family History Skills and Strategies (Advanced) course. I have taken on a volunteering role as a committee member of Batley History Group. But the big news was in September I did something totally unplanned. I went to the Society of Genealogists to attend an interview and written test to become an Associate of the professional Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives (AGRA). I was thrilled to pass and see my profile on their website, especially given this was the period between dad’s death and his funeral. My pleasure was tinged with sadness: this was the first thing of major importance I couldn’t share with him.

So now I’m a professional genealogist,  taking on client work and loving it. I take as much pleasure in researching for others as I do in undertaking my own family history journey of discovery.

In my next post I’ll set out my 2018 Resolutions.

The Camera Doesn’t Lie – But the Caption Might. A Lesson in Family History Evidence

This post is dedicated to my dad who died in August 2017, after an almost three year battle with cancer. It is prompted by a photograph which appeared recently on a local Facebook page.

This is the photo which inspired me to write this post. It is a St Mary’s Batley school Rugby League team photo. Apparently under 15s.

St Mary’s 1948-49 Rugby League Cup Winning Team – Photo reproduced with permission of Mark Oliver Lockwood

The top right boy is identified as ‘Kev Hill’. My dad. My heart wanted it to be so, but my head said otherwise. It looked more like dad’s marginally older brother, Gerard. Plus dad would have only been about 12 at the time.

I knew dad was a good rugby player, a winger. He was quick, really quick. I know when dad served in the RAF, he played Rugby Union on the wing for them: back in the 1950s Rugby League wasn’t an accepted military sport. Rugby League though was his true game. It was in the family. His uncle, Thomas Brannan, played for Batley. His cousin, Brian Briggs, played for Huddersfield, St Helens and Wakefield. He also represented Yorkshire, England and Great Britain.

One of my earliest memories is dad taking me to Mount Pleasant on a Sunday afternoon to watch Batley play. We’d usually be accompanied by his brother Gerard, and my cousin Claire. It is from those early days watching the game with dad, either live or on TV, that I developed my love of Rugby League.

One of the conversations I had in dad’s last months was how he believed his playing days wouldn’t have been halted temporarily if his own dad hadn’t died when he was three. Dad suffered a bad led injury and, for a time, his naturally protective mum stopped him playing in the lead up to a cup final whilst at school. His mum eventually relented, but it was too late. It meant he missed the cup-winning final. A big deal for him, which almost 70 years later he talked about. It meant he wasn’t on the team photo which was on display in Batley Nash. Maybe it was the team photo in the year or so after the one above.

Anyway, back to this 1948/49 photo. Seeing it knocked me for six. It was the type of photo I’d share and discuss with dad. He’d go through those photographed, identifying them from his school days. But this was the first time ever he’d been labelled on a picture. And I couldn’t ask him about it.

Dad’s younger sister and brother are alive though. And they confirmed my belief. The photo is incorrectly labelled. It’s not dad. It is his older brother Gerard, who died a few years ago. I’d noticed uncle Gerard’s shorts contravened kit rules. My uncle also pointed out that Gerard wasn’t wearing rugby boots, something I hadn’t noticed. It turns out uncle Gerard was late for the team photo. So the family knew the history behind it.

Maybe if this photo had surfaced years later when those who knew dad and his brother were long gone, descendants would’ve accepted the name labelling as correct. Who is to say that the family history photos we have today haven’t been similarly mistakenly named? As with any other family history source it pays to evaluate that source and ask questions. In this case:

  • When was the labelling done – was it years later?
  • If names do appear, who did it? The person, another family member who knew them or someone totally unrelated?
  • Is it a family group photo, for example a wedding shot, which features many family members? This might make it easier to put names to individuals. Or is it a class photo, with no other family members on?
  • Does the period look right, in terms of clothes, style and type of photograph, studio name and location etc?
  • If there are dates indicated on the shot, do they fit in with what is known?
  • Does it match the family member’s appearance in other photos (if they exist)?
  • Do other sources corroborate it?

So the moral of this story, in life as much as in family history, is question and challenge. Back up with other evidence to build up a body of proof. Don’t go on just one single piece of ‘evidence‘ and don’t go with your heart – use your head.

Dad – Father’s Day 2014, with the Family History Book I wrote for his present

Mischief Night

What links jam, string, dustbin lids, gate posts, bangers and November? If you’re of a certain age and grew up in West Yorkshire you might know.

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Essential Equipment – photo by Jane Roberts

Of late I’ve found myself reminiscing about my childhood. This time of year, autumn, used to be one of my favourites. A nip in the air, the magical dark-by-teatime nights. A season full of promise and magic.

The magic started with the annual St Mary of the Angels torchlight procession. This took place on the first Monday night in October. In this annual Catholic witness of faith which started in 1951, we’d set off from church and process through the streets of Batley, following a loudspeaker van leading us in hymn singing and decades of the Rosary. I think it was church organist and high school teacher Mr Scanlon who was the voice behind the megaphone. We’d be brandishing paper torches with a candle shoved through the middle, illuminating our way to Batley market place. It had an element of danger, which added to the excitement for children. If the wind got up, your flickering flame risked igniting the entire paper structure. There was many a scorched torch and mini inferno en route. Consider a good proportion of the participants were infant and junior school kids, carrying naked flames. Health and safety eat your heart out.

The season culminated in Bonfire Night on 5 November. It was as much about the lead up too, with chumping (collecting wood for the fire), building the up the magnificent structure, and creating the Guy to burn in top of the pyre. I never did the ‘Penny for the Guy‘ thing though, trailing the effigy around in a cart to collect money to buy fireworks.

And yes, it was Bonfire Night, not week or month. We’d have a Hill family bonfire in the garden, with combined family fireworks. We’d rotate the venue. One year it would be our house, the next my dad’s sister or brother would host the event. I think later on, bonfire parties were all at my auntie’s house.  All the cousins would be there, so a fun family gathering. We’d prepare traditional food – parkin, bonfire toffee, baked potatoes, maybe pie and peas. I remember one year we burnt all the grass in our garden. I think that was dad’s intention, because it was so overgrown. A scorched earth and start again policy. Another year at my uncle’s it was so wet the fire wouldn’t ignite. But that’s the stuff memories are made of. And only once Bonfire Night was done did the build up to Christmas begin.

In between the Torchlight Procession and Bonfire Night, there was Halloween: although that wasn’t the event it is today. No trick and treating. And no pumpkin. That was a very exotic and foreign gourd. No, we were tougher than that in Yorkshire. We carved our lanterns from turnips and swedes. Try hollowing one of those out. How we managed not to lacerate our hands in the process, heaven knows. Another one to give the health and safety obsessives nightmares. Maybe our torchlight procession attendance saved us? A kind of religious insurance protection.

Instead, our trick and treat night was more of the trick and trick variety: 4 November, the night before Bonfire Night, was deemed Mischief Night. When children roamed the streets smearing door knobs with jam or treacle; when gates would be removed from their hinges; when bin lids were tied to door handles, or door handles to neighbouring door handles; and where sprinting skills were tested to the limit by the dark art of door-knocking and running away.

Except my parents refused to let me play an active part. I could play out, but no annoying neighbours with pranks. So, imagine my surprise when talking to mum last week she described it as innocent fun. She even admitted being allowed to indulge in the door-knocking by her parents. And recalled some irate householder chasing the gang of door-knockers down a ginnel.

Surprise Number Two was the realisation that 4 November Mischief Night seemed to be particularly focused on the West Riding of Yorkshire. I always assumed children up and down the country celebrated the eve of Bonfire night in this manner. But no. Mr Arthur Blewitt, a former head-teacher, addressing the Woodbottom Parents-Teachers Association in 1952 stated:

“Mischief Night was unknown in the North Riding where he was brought up, and although he liked to regard himself as belonging to the West Riding, he certainly held these practices against the people there.”[1]

Surprise Number Three was my assumption that it was a centuries old tradition. It turned out I was only partly correct. The custom of mischief-making does date back centuries, but the actual date varied over the ages. The roots can be traced back to Roman times and the festival of Saturnalia on 17-19 December, days marked by unrestrained disorder and misrule. No public business was undertaken, law courts and schools closed and perpetrators of mischief went unpunished. In Medieval and Tudor England the Lord of Misrule directed Christmas tomfoolery at Court, a state of events which lasted a full 12 days.

In 1888 John Horsfall Turner’s book ‘Yorkshire Folk-Lore’ included a piece about Mischief Night.

“The last night in April is devoted, as far as the peregrinations of the West Riding Constabulary will allow, to a queer custom…..There is an old saying that the first of April is the “fools” day, and that the last day of the month is the “devils”…Mischief night is a night supposed by the imps of mischief (rough youths) to be, under some old law or tradition, theirs, to do as they wish with. Their duty and pleasure combined is to go round in small gangs bent upon doing all the mischief they can, unobserved by anyone in authority, or the owners they assail…..Happily, the good old times in this respect are things of the fast-disappearing present, and “mischief neet” will soon live but in the remembrance of a few.”

So, in the 19th century Mischief Night in Yorkshire was held on the last day of April. And this seemed to be the case in other English counties too.

But by the 1890s tales started appearing in the Yorkshire press about the youths of Leeds considering themselves free of all social obligations on the eve of Guy Fawkes Day. One correspondent in the Yorkshire Evening Post on 5 November 1891 wrote he had “not heard of Mischief Night until recently“.[2] But by 1894 the traditional liberties of “Mischief Night” were referred to.[3] And from the early 20th century onwards the devilment perpetrated became a huge feature of the news, with the event described as “treasured in the traditions of the British boy” and a “harmless, almost necessary incident in a lad’s life.”[4]

The mischief included the following:

  • Soot bags flung in the faces of passers-by;
  • Ropes tied across darkened streets. A refinement was for the rope to be tied between gateposts, the boys would knock on the householder’s door and he would be encouraged him to give chase to them, resulting in him ‘coming a cropper’;
  • Gateposts taken off their hinges and hidden – sometimes even suspended from lamp posts;
  • Spirit tapping, with trouser buttons suspended on string, fashioned to knock against windows;
  • Ghosts were created from turnips and purloined sheets;
  • Brooms lent against letter boxes, the door was knocked on and the householder clattered when they answered the knock;
  • Doors in the street tied together so tightly they could not be opened;
  • Boys dressed as girls and girls as boys, all wearing grotesque masks;
  • Dustbin lids removed, hidden, rolled down the street or tied to door handles;
  • Jam and treacle smeared on door handles;
  • Raids to steal wood from rival bonfires;
  • Bonfires lit in streets;

Of course, fireworks did play a part in the pranks, and occasionally it went too far. Bangers through letter boxes or thrown into shops was a particular favourite. In 1903 a small boy threw a lighted firework into a green-grocer’s shop in Hunslet. The shop sold fireworks and the missile landed in the enticing window display. Onlookers were treated to an unexpected, early pyrotechnic feast.

“Squibs and crackers fought for supremacy in the window: ‘bluelights’ and ‘Roman candles’ sizzled and spluttered in all directions, and in the end the window was blown out.”[5]

The boy did not hang around to watch his handiwork. Two fire engines attended the scene, but fortunately their services were not needed.

In 1928 another firework incident occurred in a Burley Road shop in Leeds. The Misses Simpson owned the establishment. A firework was thrown in, landing on the counter containing a display of fireworks, igniting them. One sister was overcome by smoke, whilst the other had a hole burnt into her dress. The fire brigade attended, but once again their services were not needed as neighbours managed to carry the burning showcase out into the street.

A more serious incident took place in 1946, with the destruction of a car in the Meanwood area of Leeds after a firework was thrown into the garage.

Sometimes Mischief Night led directly to Court. Assault was not unheard of. In 1908 James Moon summoned Mary Ann Thomas of Otley for assault and the use of threatening language. Moon had suffered Mischief Night stone throwing at his door. He chased and caught one of the culprits, the adopted son of Mrs Thomas, admonishing him. She heard about it, marched round to Moon’s house, and kicked and thumped him unmercilessly.

In Bradford in 1925, the appropriately named John Noddle was fined for assaulting 10-year-old Philip H Jennings, banging his head against a wall and hitting him. Jennings was part of a gang who repeatedly knocked on the door of Noddle’s 70-year-old sick mother. The other boys escaped. Noddle’s mistake was not giving the boy a slight slap – that would have been acceptable.

Dissenting voices were heard though. Letters appeared in the papers complaining about this annual victimisation, with calls for protection from the authorities. Descriptions of wilful damage at Burley Rugby Union Football Club in 1936; Complaints that it was degenerating into gang warfare. Fears of the mayhem spilling over into Bonfire Night.

In 1937 Mischief Night was described as a minor orgy in parts of Leeds. A police official said:

“Many children seem to think that they can be hooligans on that night and the police will wink at it. We have all been children ourselves, of course, but there is a limit”.

That year complaints from around the city included a 70+ year-old woman who suffered the shock of a fire-cracker exploding in her letterbox; A road of over 100 houses in Adel where almost every house had its garden gate removed. Some were still missing, whilst others hung from lamp posts; In Kirkstall a motorist had a cracker thrown under his car. He said “I thought I had been blown up“.

Overall though, up to the late 1930’s Mischief Night was indulged, regarded as a grand old custom, part of an old tradition which should be cherished. Descriptions of ‘happy bands of black-faced small boys’ abounded. Children’s columns, such as ‘Children’s Corner’ in newspapers in the lead up to Mischief Night were full of tales about pranks, with the tongue-in-cheek warning

“PS – No MISCHIEF to-night – now REMEMBER, all of you”

Even ‘Leeds Mercury’s’ Alfie Apple got in on the act.

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Alfie Apple on Mischief Night 1934

Mischief Night was a safety valve for kids. Phrases appeared such as:

“A little nonsense now and then
Is realised by the wisest men”

Adults were urged to “Try, remembering your own youth, to be as tolerant as you can.”[6] Others admitted to taking their own pleasure in it “The boys enjoy their bit of mischief; and I – in my grim way – enjoy my bit of the chase.”[7]

Both the First and Second World Wars put a temporary halt on Mischief Night. The black out and impact on bonfire night put paid to the tomfoolery. But unlike the indulgent tone post World War One, the 1940s marked a change in attitude to Mischief Night pranks. Mind you, some of the stunts now ranged from dangerous to downright sinister. In 1945 Seacroft Estate suffered particularly badly with descriptions of uprooted fences, doors battered with half-bricks and rocks; 600-700 milk bottles shattered and glass strewn all over; and most disturbingly the theft and killing of white pet rabbits, the corpses of which were scattered about the roadway.[8] Calls for the police to be issued with good serviceable canes in the lead up to Mischief Night ensued.

The police did become far more pro-active. From October onwards, Leeds constabulary issued warnings about behaviour, with Leeds Chief Constable J.W. Barnett prominent in the papers.

In October 1947 the 999 system was introduced in Leeds. That year the Leeds City Police Force dealt with Mischief Night incidents via their new police operations room. 999 calls began to come in from 6pm. Within minutes police patrol cars were dispatched, and garden gates recovered and replaced. Other incidents that night included windows broken, warning lamps removed from roadworks, a gas lamp set on fire on the Scott Hall Road/Buslingthorpe Lane junction, and car tyres deflated in the Chapeltown and Moortown areas of the city. One child, seven-year-old Peter Norfolk, was treated in hospital for concussion after being struck by a bottle.

Leeds police put in place even more elaborate procedures to deal with Mischief Night mayhem in 1948. This included 40 police cars patrolling the city from 6pm until midnight – 17 of which were equipped with wireless communication!!!! On the outskirts special constables patrolled in their own vehicles. It marked their busiest night since the operations room’s inception, with the receipt of 56 emergency 999 calls. Incidents included the normal fireworks in letterboxes, deflated tyres and the removal of danger lamps from roadworks. And in one example of old-fashioned long since gone policing, the bobbies apprehended three boys who had thrown black paint on a door in Headingley. The policemen watched over the lads until they washed it all off – which took until midnight.

That year even the Pope was quoted as getting to the heart of the whole problem, when he said[9]:

When to mischief mortals bend their will
How soon they find fit instruments of ill!

1949 saw yet another increase in Mischief Night 999 calls in Leeds – the grand total of 61. Some folk were now urging for the abolition of this tradition. The police urged youngsters to confine mischief to innocent pranks.

Jump forward to the early 21st century and I reckon the tradition has gone. I don’t think my daughter has heard about it. Now it’s Halloween and Trick and Treat that’s king, a far more benign custom. But it’s wonderful to recall the good old days, and customs of the past.

And what has this to do with family history? Well, I think the history of the times is as much a part of family history as building a tree. I love to know what was going on when my ancestors were alive. Sometimes we ignore our more recent family stories too.

And you never know, you may find a family member named. For example this newspaper report[10] from Batley Borough Court in 1889 about a 5 November incident:

“LETTING OFF FIREWORKS IN THE STREETS…..Arthur Chappell, Charles Ottiwell , John Hill and Fred Smith were each fined 1s and costs.”

I wonder if this John Hill was my great grandad, age 16?

FOOTNOTE

As a result of this post I’m now collecting information about which English, Scottish & Welsh Counties celebrated 4 November Mischief Night. It might be only a small area in the County participated – if so please let me know. Similarly, I’d love to know if certain places held it on another night (e.g. 30 April).  I’ll update this post accordingly and hopefully by Mischief Night 2018 I’ll have an area map. 

UPDATED AREAS

Those which celebrated Mischief Night

  • East Yorkshire
  • Merseyside (So far, the Liverpool area)
  • Parts of North Yorkshire (Mr Blewitt may possibly have misinformed the Woodbottom PTA):  villages between Pateley Bridge & Harrogate. Although another friend from Harrogate says they didn’t have it. 
  • West Yorkshire

Those which did not have a Mischief Night tradition

  • Cambridgeshire (including the historic Ancient County of Huntingdonshire)
  • Carmarthenshire 
  • Cornwall
  • Derbyshire (so far have been informed about South East of County)
  • Devon
  • Gwent
  • Lancashire
  • Norfolk
  • Nottinghamshire
  • Suffolk

[1] Shipley Times and Express – 12 November 1952
[2] Yorkshire Evening Post – 5 November 1891
[3] Yorkshire Evening Post – 6 November 1894
[4] Bradford Daily Telegraph – 5 November 1903
[5] Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer – 5 November 1903
[6] Leeds Mercury – 4 November 1936
[7] Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer – 4 November 1940
[8] Yorkshire Evening Post – 9 November 1940
[9] Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer – 5 November 1948
[10] Batley Reporter – 16 November 1889

Family History Alert: Launch of New GRO (General Register Office) Extended PDF Pilot for Certificates

Good news for those family historians wanting to potentially cut down on cost and delivery time for those all-important English and Welsh birth and death certificates. Almost 12 months since the launch of the last PDF trial, which I wrote about here, the GRO have launched a new extended PDF pilot, similar to 2016’s Phase 1 trial. GRO TrialThe results from that proved inconclusive in assessing impact on other GRO and Local Registration services. The GRO have therefore announced that, as from 12 October 2017, they will be running a PDF pilot which will run for a minimum of  three months – so not the mad dash three week/45,000 limit of last year’s Phase 1 trial. This longer run will better enable the GRO to make a considered evaluation of the pilot. [Note this time period has now been extended to a minimum of nine months. See the update at the end of this post].

The more relaxed timeframe will also have benefits for us family historians  – giving us more time to evaluate our tree for gaps, and make repeat orders depending on what the certificates reveal once they arrive. The GRO say the PDFs should be received within five working days of ordering, providing the order is placed before 4pm.

Like last year the cost of a PDF certificate is £6. And, akin to the 2016 Phase 1 trial, it is limited to 1837-1916 birth certificates and 1837-1957 death certificates. This equates to those already digitised certificates under the GRO’s old DoVE (Digitisation of Vital Events) project. The DoVE project was never completed, hence the pilot limitations. So bad luck if you’ve been hanging on for a marriage certificate, or a post-1916 birth or post-1957 death certificate.

The GRO are unable to answer at this stage whether the service will become permanent or whether there will be an extension to more products (eg marriages).

That said, it is still a welcome announcement for those who want a birth or death certificate for family history purposes. Note the PDFs cannot be used for official purposes – e.g. passport applications.

The link to the GRO site is here. More details about the pilot can be found here.

I will be spending the weekend assessing any civil registration gaps in my tree.

Update: In mid-January 2018 the GRO updated their website information on this latest trial. The length of the pilot has been extended to run for a minimum of 9 months, from the original 12 October 2017 start date.

Lost in France (Or Belgium)? Not Me, Thanks to a Friendly LinesMan. 

I’m back from my latest visit to the Somme and Ypres area. In 11 days I notched up in excess of 100 miles walking the battlefields. And, thanks to a fantastic piece of kit which I used for the first time this visit, I reckon on this trip few of those miles were as a result of getting lost and retracing steps. 

Let me introduce my new guide: it’s called a LinesMan. WW1 Trench Maps put together in one handy package by Great War Digital.

This miracle-worker actually belongs to my husband. It was his Christmas present. But due to surgery a few weeks ago, he wasn’t up to miles of walking. I was. Hence I laid claim to it – and I’m now loath to let it go.  

On Sunken Lane with my LinesMan2Go – Photo by Chris Roberts

I love walking the battlefields. In my opinion it’s the only way to get an appreciation of the distances and lie of the land facing those involved in the Great War. Normally I’m armed with walking guidebooks: Paul Reed’s ‘Walking the Somme’ and his old edition of ‘Walking the Salient‘; plus ‘A Visitor’s Guide: The First Day of the Somme: Gommecourt to Maricourt‘, and Battle Lines Ypres: Nieuwpoort to Ploegsteert‘ by Jon Cooksey and Jerry Murland. Brilliant though they are, occasionally the instructions are too ambiguous for me, which leads me up the battlefield equivalent of the garden path – the mis-communication trench.

For example, instructions such as “Continue through the woods…Approximately halfway along you will notice a track running off to your left at right angles. This was the junctionof Bunhill Row with the Strand” could be problematical if the route is unfamiliar. How can I be expected to know what is halfway on a path I’ve never trodden? Cue my LinesMan maps. I have the LinesMan2Go version, which is a Samsung Galaxy tablet preloaded with over original 800 geo-referenced digital images of British 1:10,000 scale trench maps of the Western Front in Belgium and France. The GPS shows exactly where I am via a red onscreen tracker circle, and the map pinpoints where the Bunhill Row/Strand junction is.  I can see exactly where I am in relation to the junction, a real navigation aid. 

An illustration of this is the photo below on the Butte de Warlencourt walk from Paul Reed’s 2nd edition of ‘Walking the Somme‘. Proof I made it.

LinesMan in Action on Butte de Warlencourt walk – Photo by Jane Roberts

On other occasions its beauty is in its ability to confirm you have taken the correct overgrown track and are heading in the right direction – a welcome reassurance when you’ve been walking for ages in what seems like the middle of nowhere!

The option to track my route via the LinesMan, in conjunction with the guide book, gives an even greater understanding of the terrain. The maps cover different dates, so one area has several maps enabling you to see any changes over time as well as linking to modern times. The LinesMan is therefore a perfect partner to the books. No need now to take multiple bulky trench maps on my visits, and even worse find I’ve left the relevant one at home.

More than that though, the LinesMan is invaluable from a family history point of view. It has enabled me to track the final days of my ancestor Jesse Hill. He served with the 6th King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI) and was killed in action on 19 September 1915, near Ypres. The Unit War Diary includes a map of ‘H‘ Sector dated 27 July 1915, and it is in trenches in this Sector the battalion were based at the time of Jesse’s death. 

‘H’ Sector trenches, 26 July 1915 – 6th KOYLI Unit War Diary

Comparing this Unit War Diary map with the Bellewaarde Ridge & Hooge walk in Cooksey & Murland, then tracking my route via my LinesMan maps enabled me to confirm earlier research, and pinpoint with confidence the area in which he died. 

Snapshot from Linesman Map 10-28 Part 5-160416 Hooge Showing Railway Wood Area

Walking the actual trench locations wasn’t possible – a field full of turnips put paid to that  (at least that’s what they looked to be given my pathetic agricultural skills, *ancestors spinning in their graves*). But it was enough for me just to know I’d definitely nailed it. It also confirmed the fact that my previous visits, without aid of the LinesMan2Go, had put me in roughly the right area.  It’s good to have that final piece of confirmation though.

‘H’ Sector area, 20 September 2017 – Photo by Jane Roberts

But it also has other uses. Map references, for example those CWGC ones indicating where bodies were found prior to being brought into concentration cemeteries, take on a new relevance with my LinesMan. I also liked the facility to map routes out as I walked them, so I could review my footsteps at the end of my walk. And flicking through the range of maps for a particular location across different dates show the changes (or not) which took place during the course of the war.

I do need to get more practice using my LinesMan (yes, I’ve claimed it) in order to familiarise myself with all its features and get the best out of it. Initial issues for me, which more practice should resolve include improving my speed in manipulating the various maps; I also found it extremely touch sensitive, so found myself inadvertently flicking maps – but again more use should remedy this. More problematical issues, which are beyond my control, relate to weather: too sunny and screen glare becomes an issue; too wet, and at times rain proved torrential, is even worse – I didn’t dare use my precious tablet.

As I mentioned I (sorry, Chris) have the LinesMan2Go version: a tablet with all the maps pre-loaded. That’s because I was a tad worried at my ability to transfer the maps to iPhone, iPad or Android device. For me the primary reason for the kit was to enhance my battlefield visits. But I would like to view the maps on my computer, beyond what is available via the National Library of Scotland maps. So for that reason perhaps I should have been braver and trusted my technological skills.

For more details about the Great War Digital’s LinesMan products, including how to purchase them, click here

Finally, my review of this product is totally independent. I used the LinesMan2Go for the first time this visit, and was so impressed by it I wanted to share my experience.

A Grave Plot: Rest In Peace?

One of my guilty pleasures is to wander round the local cemetery reading the inscriptions on headstones. I love a good old inscription. I can while away hours strolling along the pathways and across undulating ground, pausing to read the words or simply admire the beauty and variety of these monuments.  The joy that discovering a family headstone can bring is a thrill that many family historians will relate to. But I’m not fussy. Even if the family is unrelated to me, if the inscription captures my attention, I will research the story behind it. For example, see my post about a young couple from Batley who died as a result of a wartime seaside cliff fall.

I naively always assumed some kind of permenancy with a headstone. That centuries later it would still stand, somewhat weather-worn but erect, a relict of a past era, a witness to a life long gone. But this ideal is far from true. Close to home I’ve witnessed it.

Early 20th Century Postcard of Batley Parish Church Showing Headstones – from Maggie Blanck’s Website at http://www.maggieblanck.com/Land/PhotosBatley.html

The claustrophobic jumble of headstones at All Saints Parish Church in Batley have long since gone. Similarly Mirfield St Mary’s Churchyard lost many of its old headstones, including that of my 5x great grandparents. I only know of it’s existence from a 19th century handwritten transcript of Memorial Inscriptions (MIs), via the Yorkshire Archaeological and Historical Society (YAHS) whose archives are now located in the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds. A local car business on Staincliffe Hall Road, Batley, on the site of a former Methodist Chapel, had the graveyard headstones in its driveway. I clearly remember seeing them as a child, when the Chapel was converted to a baby clinic. More recently they have vanished. I’m not quite sure when, but I would love to know what became of them. One small crumb of comfort is it appears MIs do exist for them, again via the YAHS. Even councils are not immune to headstone destruction. In 2011 Kirklees was criticised for a money-saving scheme whereby headstones, with inscriptions clearly visible, were recycled to build a wall in Netherton.

Weathered Headstones at Tynemouth Priory – Photo by Jane Roberts

Even if they remain in situ, exposure to the elements may take their toll over time, wearing inscriptions to illegibility. They may be laid flat by councils if they are deemed unstable and potentially dangerous. Batley Cemetery, for example, is undergoing a memorial safety programme. I spent 15 unsuccessful minutes on hold with Kirkless Bereavement Services trying to find out what this entailed. From my visit to the cemetery often this means the headstones are frequently placed face-down, so those carefully thought-through lasting tributes are hidden forevermore. And with burial plots decreasing in availability, particularly in urban areas, many local authorities are looking at alternative strategies for public cemeteries. Then there is deliberate vandalism.

Batley Cemetery Headstones – Photo by Jane Roberts

One thing I did not realise until arranging dad’s funeral is the terms under which burial plots are owned. I mistakenly believed if you bought a burial plot it belonged to the family for ever. Not so. You are merely leasing the plot. In the case of Kirklees Council the lease term is 50 years. Some local authorities have leases of as little as 25 years. The maximum is 100 years. In short you are purchasing the exclusive right to say who will be buried in that grave for a set period. The family can choose to renew the lease for a fee. For this reason it is important to keep address and contact details up-to-date with the relevant council bereavement services.

If the lease is not renewed, the headstone can be removed and collected by the owner – or destroyed by the local authority. Existing burials in the plot are not removed or disturbed, but remaining space in the plot may be resold.  So, with space for burial plots running low, the permenancy of headstones faces an extra threat.  Southwark Council, for example, face opposition to their cemetery plans with claims by Friends of Camberwell Cemeteries  that they are a ‘Grave Reuse and Reclamation Burial Strategy‘.

All this means the work of Family History Society volunteers, cemetery friends groups, those conducting one-place studies, projects such as BillionGraves and individuals in recording MIs will become ever more valuable. For example the Mirfield St Mary’s ones I mentioned earlier in this piece are included on the Kirkheaton Info Archive Database.

So do not assume that headstone will be there for ever. Photograph it now and make a note of that inscription just in case. And check out various archives, one-place studies websites, cemetery groups and Family History Societies for MI transcripts.