Start your family tree – the time is NOW

In what is the last few days of 2014, I’m thinking back through to last January and my 2014 genealogy resolutions (more on their progress or otherwise, and my 2015 ones to come).

Man holding magnifying glass and death certificate
I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by ‘new records’ right now.

This year has been a busy one for genealogy as an industry, and history as a whole, what with some significant world war anniversaries.

Meanwhile, I’ve continued working on my trees, undertaking a couple of bits of free detective work for a friend and also in response to finding a family bible in an antiques store, busily updating my Family Tree UK site with some nice Structured Data for the benefit of Search (yes, my inner nerd has been binging on that), finding a ghost, and joining a one-name organisation that’s found its way through somewhat of a sudden unexpected and perhaps turbulent period of change, I’ve been merrily receiving emails about the latest new sets of hundreds of thousands of newly-available records.

That list of newly available records has kept on growing and growing and that kind of leaves me feeling a bit overwhelmed. I feel like I’ve dropped the ball and let my genealogy badge slip.

Perhaps I should just draw a line, and start again?

Only joking, I’m not about to throw 20yrs worth of work away.

But, there’s so much ‘new’ out there, that I feel a bit lost in the noise again.

This is why, if you’re only just starting, or you’re toying with the idea to explore your tree, or to find out if your old grandmother’s rumours were in any way true or just romanticised whimsy, then this is the time to start it.

Book yourself into a session with your local archives, or talk to your oldest coherent relatives, find out the photos.. but make sure you use the sites that carry the ‘human’ bits of genealogy and record them too – not just the number counts of a census return, but the newspapers, the scraps of info from war records, and the scribbly notes in parish registers.

How does that help me?

What I need to do is climb back down my tree branches and stand at the bottom of the family tree, look upwards, and then slowly learn to climb it again. By doing so, I should find new information that helps to make those old branches grow a little bit more.

In my random casual looks for records against close relatives, these new record sets from the likes of the British Newspaper Archive and FindMyPast, have allowed me to fill in more of the everyday lives of people I thought I had already.

I’ve only just dipped my toes/fingers/nose into their millions of records that they’ve been steadily releasing this year. Kudos to FindMyPast, who despite taking a massive backlash when they altered their website, on a scale that was a-kin to the Ancestry Search Change Disaster (remember that?), I think they have led the way with getting the more numerous and more interesting records into their data-sets.

Also, with the launch of sites like Lives Of The First World War from the Imperial War Museum, the information is not only going to come from record organisations, but also via personal histories through the wisdom of crowds.

A snapshot of Lives Of The First World War stats
A snapshot of today’s Lives Of The First World War stats

Of course I should expect to see ‘new’ information turn up – and I’ve enjoyed this immensely spending more time exploring the Ancestry ‘Hints’, and only recently found some photos of my Great Grandfather – Alfred Newman, aged about 28 (youngest I’d ever seen him previously to that, was in his 40s). I never met him.

Ancestry Hits
All these Hints will keep me busy on Ancestry in the Christmas period.

I’ve yet to delve into School Records, but really hoping to find lots of notes on my Great Grandmother as being a mischievous little devil (I always felt she had a rebellious streak in her).

I’m also yet to explore the new online ‘Find A Will’ service from The Probate Service. I’ve always enjoyed reading Wills, but have very few of them. I have some great transcripts of 16th-19th century ones, and they’ve been perfect for unravelling relationships between generations.

With so much to even start to explore, this is why I almost feel like I did when I first walked into a Records Office (the Bury St Edmunds one).

It is exciting, revealing, overwhelming…. and oh…. wonderfully addictive.

Standard or News?

Guest blogger Jane Freeman writes about using local history sources in print and online to research her Stretham roots.

Ooooh, this is a bit scary …. my first “guest” blog. Let’s start with the fact that I’m nearly related to Andrew, via a chap called Francis Yarrow, of Little Thetford, who married Anne Langford in Stretham, back in the mists of time. So, Andrew & I are related in a rather tenuous way best described by my maternal grandmother as “their cat ran over our doorstep”.

My maternal grandmother, that is, who came from Stretham, and whose wedding photo started me on my genealogical travellings. Kate Langford was born in 1889 and left the village, as girls her age did, to go into service. Her brothers mostly stayed there and my visits to Stretham as a child were to see “Uncle Bill”, her older brother, by then a widower living with two of his step-daughters. Cis & Ethel – one of them was an excellent cook and to this day I remember her mince pies & sausage rolls at Christmas!

These are the kind of memories which I most like about family history; collecting names and occupations is fine, and satisfying in its own way, but I like to make them into “real” people again and this part of my research is being aided and abetted at the moment by the British Newspaper Archives. A brilliant resource, albeit slightly expensive – its Australian counterpart “Trove” is free. But I digress: my latest find was in the Chelmsford Chronicle, May 1844, under the heading “Awfully destructive fire at Stretham”, which described a widespread fire in the village affecting “not fewer than 25 houses, &c………including habitations of wealthy agriculturists and humble labourers….” (see below for transcription of the full article). Although these articles are very useful in telling one who was around at the time, the writing of them also fascinates me. They didn’t have photographs, of course, to show the destruction so the journalists had only words to use; and how well did they use them.

Stretham - A Feast of Memories by Beatrice Stevens

More up to date, but every bit as informative, is “Stretham: A Feast of Memories” by the late Beatrice Stevens. This book gives a portrait of life in the village in the early 20th century and is an absolute gold-mine of detail. The Cambridgeshire library has a number of copies and I recommend it highly for those who have an interest in the village! In its pages I discovered that Uncle Bill’s step-son emigrated to Canada, returning a few years later to fight in the Great War (wherein he was wounded and lost an eye – in the Ely Standard, that one) and returned once more to Stretham, this time with his wife. Because of these clues I went to the Outgoing Passenger Lists on FindMyPast, and thence to the Canadian Library & Archives for his Attestation Papers. Never mind that I’m not at all related to him – I just had to know what happened to him. He sailed on the “Tunisian” to Halifax, Nova Scotia, leaving Liverpool three days after the 1911 census, and subsequently joined the Canadian Mounted Rifles when the Great War broke out.

So, while I couldn’t live without the census and parish registers, it’s the “off-piste” information which I enjoy most of all; the only problem is that I get so easily side-tracked – I mean, what’s not to like about some of the old adverts or, my particular favourite, seeing articles in the Cambridge papers of the late 19th/early 20th century which are complaining about traffic chaos!

‘Awfully destructive fire at Stretham’

CHELMSFORD CHRONICLE – 10th May 1844

One of the most awful fires which it was ever our province to record took place Wednesday week, at Stretham, near Ely. The destruction of property is enormous; and when we say that not fewer than 25 houses, &c. have been razed to the ground, including habitations of wealthy agriculturists and humble labourers, the reader will imagine for himself the extent of misery which must be the consequence of this lamentable visitation.

The fire originated in small hovel adjoining the blacksmith’s shop of Mr. John Westby. It is supposed that some sparks of hot iron were the immediate cause of the catastrophe, but this does not quite clearly appear. At any rate, about one o’clock in the day the hovel was discovered to be in flames; and although assistance was hand, and the fire seemed at first but trifling, so dry were the materials of which the hovel was composed that it was very soon enveloped in flames, which communicated with Mr. Westbv’s house on one side, and Mr. Wright’s stack-yard the other. No sooner were Mr. Wright’s extensive and well-stored premises seized upon by the devouring element, than the utmost alarm for the safety of the village was entertained. Nor was this alarm unfounded, for the flames spread with such frightful rapidity, on both sides of the street, that in a little more than an hour from the time of their breaking out twenty-five occupations, extending over about fifteen acres of ground were in a blaze. To describe the scene would be impossible. The reader will conceive the terrible fright and disorder which prevailed, and the awful character of the destruction going on. So wonderfully rapid was the spread of the names, and so great the heat emanating from the immense mass of burning materials, that many those who fancied their premises secure when the fire first broke out, and consequently neglected to take care their own furniture, clothes, &c. were unable to secure a particle. Some have lost every chip and every rag, save the garments they happened to have on at the time. There is no engine at Stretham. About two o’clock the Haddenham engine arrived, and to the good use made of it, under the most active and energetic directions of the Rev. S. Banks, incumbent of Haddenham, may be attributed the saving of great part of the village. On one side of the street, the progress of the flames was arrested at a cow-lodge, belonging to Mr. Hazel, and the other side the yard of the public-house, next Messrs. Senet and Graves’s premises. In order that the reader may form an idea the extent of damage done by this destructive conflagration, we will give a list of the premises burnt.

  1. The hovel in which the fire originated.
  2. John Westby, blacksmith.—House, furniture, and clothes destroyed.
  3. Mr. Boultentarf, miller.—House, furniture, out-buildings, hay, &c.
  4. Mr. Wright, farmer.—Mr. Wright’s premises occupy both sides the street; at present we are describing the property on the south, but we include Mr. Wright’s total loss. Two barns, stables, cart-lodges, 300 coombs of wheat, 4 wheat stacks, 3 hay stacks, 2 straw stacks, a large number of pigs and fowls, &c. destroyed. House saved.
  5. Mr. Coy, farmer.—Dwelling-house, new barn, granary, stables, machines, wagons, out-buildings, wheat stack, beanstack, hay stack, straw stack, about 12 pigs, fowls, &c.
  6. Mr. Murfitt.—House, furniture, barn, stables, hay, &c.
  7. Mr. Lester, butcher.—House, furniture, clothes, stables, cart, five £5 notes, and 40s. in silver.
  8. Mr. Jackson.—House, barn, hay stable, & building in the yard.
  9. Mr. S. Wright.—House, bam, stables, hay stack, wheat, peas, and beans.
  10. Mr. Philips, baker.—House, furniture, clothes, stock-in-trade, and in fact every thing.
  11. Alms-houses—two families.
  12. Ditto —four families.
  13. Mr. John Wheeler, shoemaker and brewer.—House, furniture, stock in trade, warehouse, &c.
  14. Mr. Hazel.—Cow-lodge. Here the fire was stopped on this side of the street.
  15. Mr. Wright.—See No. 4.
  16. Mr. R. Wheeler.—House and out-buildings.
  17. Mr. Gibbons, shoemaker.—House, furniture, stock in trade, and every thing.
  18. Mr. Dimmock.—House, buildings, &c.
  19. Mr. Langford, linen-draper.—House, furniture, stocktrade, and every thing.
  20. Mr. Baxter, harness-maker.-The same.
  21. Mr. Savidge, tailor.—The same.
  22. Mr. T. Grainger farmer.—Barn, stables, every outbuilding, haystack, straw stack, 30 coomb of beans, about 40 coomb oats, 14 pigs, a quantity of fowls, &c. Mr. Grainger’s barn was the largest the county: nothing but the walls are left, and so intense was the heat that the brickwork seems in some places to have been almost molten. The house was saved.
  23. Mr. L Langford – House, stable, barn & other buildings.
  24. Mr. Dring, veterinary surgeon – House and furniture.
  25. Messrs. Senet and Graves.—House, barn, and stables.

It will be understood from the foregoing that the desolation is heart-rending. The Church was made the receptacle of the furniture, &c. which could saved: and as to the numerous persons deprived of house and home, they were accommodated as well as circumstances would admit, and every attention paid to them by the clergyman and their neighbours. Two engines from Ely were present: and the Superintendent and some men of the isle Ely constabulary rendered great service in the prevention of depredations. It is of course difficult to speak with any thing like accuracy but it has been estimated at between £15,000 and £20,000, a great portion of the property being, we fear, uninsured.— Cambridge Chronicle.