Monday, 20 April 2015

A-Z Challenge - Q. for Questions, Questions

A-Z of Family History Sources & Stories 
Join me on this A-Z journey to explore the fascinating records 
that can  enhance your family history research and writing.

QUESTIONS   are at the heart of our family history research. So many avenues are open to us now, beyond the traditional local and family history society magazine pages, with online message boards, social network sites etc.

We can  generally find out the "who, where, and when" about our ancestor's lives, but the "why" remains a mystery and we can only hazard a guess as to motives.  

Why was 6 year old John Robert Donaldson left behind when his parents moved 350 miles south?
John was born in 1854, the son of Robert Donaldson, a shipwright, and Isabella Walton of South Shields ON  the north east coast of England.  An obvious next step was to find the family in the 1861 Census, but frustratingly, in the days before online records, this proved impossible to trace. Yet all the indications were that direct Donaldson descendants had remained in South Shields down the generations.

It was only much later the opportunity to do national searches online revealed that by 1861 Robert and Isabella were at Portsea in Portsmouth on the south coast of England. With them were two young sons Thomas, aged 4, born South Shields and one year old Frederick W. (Walton perhaps after Isabella's maiden name?) born at Portsea, indicating a move c.1857-1860. But there was no mention of their eldest son, John who would have been 6 years old. 

How had the family travelled 350 miles from South Shields to Portsea, by rail or more likely by sea? Was work the reason, with Robert now employed at Her Majesty's Dockyard as a shipwright? Why was John not with them? 

Back in South Shields, I returned to the 1861 census and found John's maternal grandparents, John and Hannah Walton, with the household also including their grandson John Robert Walton aged 6. This must be "my" John Robert Donaldson, mistakenly recorded in the census with the wrong surname. An entry in the 1871 census gave further confirmation - a John Donaldson, aged 16, born c.1855 was living at the home of his maternal uncle Robert Walton. Death records showed that John must have lost his grandparents (and his home) in 1868.

Eight year later John married Jane Elizabeth Rushton. and they had four sons - John Robert, Henry, Thomas, Frederick and one daughter Isabella. Interestingly these names echoed those of his siblings in Portsmouth. For Robert and Isabella had more children, making a family of Thomas, Fredrick, Henry, Robert, Charles, Isabella and Alfred.

The fact that John retained the name of his father and mother for his eldest son and daughter suggests that the split had been amicable. One cannot help wonder did the two families ever meet again.

Why was my great grandmother, who was named Maria on her birth certificate, noted as  Martha M.   in later official records, including her marriage certificate?

Maria was only 4 years old when her baby sister Martha died, so could hardly have remembered her, but did she, for some reason, adopt her name as her own?  
Maria Danson, nee Rawcliffe (1859-1919) 
with her only daughter Jennie (after 8 surviving sons)
and granddaughter Annie Maria.

Why did Maria's sister Alice and family (husband John Mason, a general labourer,  and six children under 11 years old)  emigrate  from Fleetwood, a fishing town in Lancashire to Brooklyn, New York in 1886-7. 

Alice and John Mason and their eight surviving children c.1920's

These Questions remain mysteries that can be the source of family history stories  and I may never know the answers - another factor that makes this hobby  so absorbing. 

Something else to ponder on:
  • What questions do you regret not asking your parents or grandparents? 
  • What questions do you ask yourself when viewing sources of information, online transcriptions and family trees  etc. to assess their validity? 
Copyright © 2015 · Susan Donaldson.  All Rights Reserved


On to R for Reconnecting with Relatives 
& Research Tales 

Saturday, 18 April 2015

A-Z Challenge - P for Poor Law Records

 A-Z of Family History Sources & Stories 
Join me on this A-Z journey to explore the fascinating records 
that can  enhance your family history research and writing.

A Plethera of Ps is awaiting you, including  Photographs, Postcards, Police Records,  Population Studies,   Parishes, Prisoners, Personal Memories and Places  to give your family story colour and context. 

But here I am focusing on POOR LAW RECORDS with a look at a Pauper's life in Scotland in the 19th century.

 Seeing an ancestor described as a "pauper" in a census return conjures up images of Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist" and a time when the word "poorhouse" (or  "workhouse" in England) struck fear in people living close to destitution.  But for family historians searching for a story beyond the simple names and dates, such a discovery is an  immediate prompt to turn to poor law records - not generally available online.
They are one of the most popular types of offline tools at my local archive centre, the Heritage Hub, Hawick in the Scottish Borders,  and, although they have not been a source for my own family,  I find it fascinating to browse through them. 

Poorhouses were set up in Scotland as a result of the Poor Law (Scotland) Act of 1845 Between 1845 and 1930 over 70 poorhouses were constructed in Scotland  with an additional 90 smaller almshouses in operation. In the Scottish Borders, poorhouses were set up  in five towns serving not only the immediate town but surrounding parishes - hence their name of Combination Poorhouse or Union Poorhouse.  My own village of Earlston in Berwickshire was one of twenty-three parishes  served by Kelso Poorhouse in Roxburghshire - a lesson in research  not to get  too restricted by county boundaries. 

The Victorians  were great bureaucrats and the Heritage Hub holds a large collection of local Poor Law Registers, Poor Relief Applications and Parochial Board Minute Books, many of which can give a mini-biography of an ancestor, in often tragic circumstances, with details of name, address, aged, birthplace, marital status,  occupation, whether disabled and if so how, financial circumstances, and dependents.  Here are some examples which caught my attention:
  • Robert Leck, once a well known clockmaker of Jedburgh, admitted to the poorhouse aged 67, with a pattern of admissions and discharges until the time came when he was "wholly disabled, nearly blind and wholly destitute".  Interestingly when I did a Google search, I found  an illustration of a Robert Leck grandfather clock about to be auctioned in London.
  • The story of Janet Scott had a more positive outcome.  Her admission record in 1877 gives us a glimpse of the desperate situation in which many applicants for poor relief found themselves.  A single mother with  two children and a baby, working as an agricultural  labourer, she  was "wholly disabled by a cart falling on her".  She was on parish relief for three years.  However she also demonstrated her resilience, as  in the 1881 census she was back earning a living, as an Ag. Lab, along with her two eldest daughters.  
Janet Scott's entry in the Jedburgh Union Poorhouse Register, 1877.  
In the collection of  the Heritage Hub, Hawick
Being a "pauper" did not always mean being admitted to the poorhouse,  as those on "out relief" lived in the  community and received support such as clothing, fuel or food, as illustrated in these records from Duns, Berwickshire:

  •  15 year old James Robertson is described as "delicate and deformed by spine curvature and will never be able to do much.  He needs a suit of clothes, 2 pairs of stockings and 2 handkerchiefs.  Allowed. 
  • Mary Burns, also in need of clothing , was granted " 1 frock, 2 yards flannel, 2 yards drugget, 2 pinafores and a  pair of boots."
  • At Melrose, Rosburghshire, a mother and young children were "footsore and weary"  and given help as they made their way from Newcastle to Glasgow to rejoin family  - a distance of 114 miles.
  • Mary Phllips was admitted to the Poorhouse as "this woman's husband deserted her, having absconded to America.  She has 2 children and is about to be confined.  Her parents very poor."
  • The Inspector was not always the hard face of the law.  At Melrose two young children whose mother had run away with another man,  were given a penny to buy a roll and told to return home and send their father.   The record showed six  young children in the family aged from 13 to 3 years old.
  • Rebecca Ballantyne, however, "burdened with 2 illegitimate children" was refused poor relief on the grounds she was able bodied and earning a good wage - 15 shillings a week as a mill worker.
  • In Hawick "Robert Campbell, a weaver, almost disabled by rheumatism applied for relief and was offered admission to the Poorhouse, but declined the offer."
  • "George Wilson, a labourer, wholly disabled by bronchitis,  as certified  by Doctor McLeod, was sent to the Poorhouse on 26th March but left the same on 2nd April."

Most of these records are not available online, so my tip of the day is {again} to contact the appropriate local archives centre, with most offering  a remote research service.  You never know what might be unearthed to throw light on your ancestors' lives.

Take a look  too, at the definitive website that covers  England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland - a compressive, invaluable site, full of information including  transcripts of the 1881 census of staff and inmates. 


Onto Q for Questions, Questions 

Friday, 17 April 2015

A-Z Challenge - O for Occupational Records

A-Z of Family History Sources & Stories 
Join me on this A-Z journey to explore the fascinating records 
that can  enhance your family history research and writing.

OCCUPATIONAL RECORDS -  if you are lucky, you may find records relating to an ancestor's working life in your local archive centre, though a lot does depend on the particular type of employment.  Here are some examples of what I have come across:

ARCHITECTS - A Dictionary of Scottish Architects is  a database providing detailed biographical information and job lists for all architects known to have worked in Scotland during the period 1840-1980, whether as principals, assistants or apprentices.  A "must consul" item if this is your ancestor's background.

Being COUNCILLOR   might seem rather dull,  but the Burgh and County Council  Minute Books, which go back to the mid 17th century,  give a full description of local affairs and council discussions and can reveal interesting sidelines,  such as the councillor in the 1880's who was petitioning in support of woman's suffrage, long before it was close to becoming a reality. 
FARMING RECORDS I have already discussed under F HERE. 

MARINERS -   I used the enquiry service of Tyne and Wear Archives who provided me  information on the life of my husband's ancestor, Robert Donaldson   (1801-1876),  a master mariner of South Shields.  “A Dictionary of Tyne Sailing Ships:  a record of merchant sailing ships owned, registered and built at the Port of Tyne 1830-1930”, compiled by Richad Key  is a complete A-Z of Ships, master mariners and owners, detailing ships, voyages, disasters and share-ownerships, and much more - an indispensable for anyone with maritime ancestors in this region.

The entries make fascinating reading, with all six ships on which Robert Donaldson sailed, having an eventful history and coming to a sad end (though not under his charge).  

Lloyds Captain's'  Register provided information on the ships under the command of another mariner ancestor, Matthew Iley White.  His journeys took him to the North sea ports of Belgium and Holland, to Spain & Portugal, the Mitterrand, Black Sea, Adriatic Sea,and north to the Baltic and the Gulf of Finalnd.   

[Above right - another ancestral master mariner - John Moffet of South Shields]

MINERS   - my husband's Arrmitage and Hibbert ancestors were miners in Yorkshire, Derbyshire and County Durham, where the  history of mines, mining and miners  is well documented on the Internet.

The website provided detailed  information when I was researching the Spowart family of Fife.   

An early insight into life in mining areas was given by Robert Franks in his report to the Children's Employment Commission in 1842 who commented  "The domestic condition of the collier population presents a deplorable picture of filth and poverty" .   

He conducted interviews with children including 15 year old Helen Spowart who  was described as  a “putter”, with the task of propelling   a loaded coal-hutch from the coal-face to the pit-bottom by means of a series of shoves or pushes.

The report noted "Began to work in mines when nine years old and has done ever since. Helen added  "It is very coarse, heavy, cloughty work, and I get enough of it, as am never able to do muckle after hours from the fatigue".

POLICEMEN & PRISONERS  -  if your ancestor was a constable or even  on the other side  of the law, police records are a great resource and include mug shot photos of criminals, lists of prisoners, plus constable registers with personal details including descriptions, service record,  next of kin and family etc.

A long-held family story recollected a lost photograph of a relative in a top hat serving in the River Tyne Police. A silver uniform button (left)  was still held by the family. Tyne & Wear Archives provided some answers, finding that not only Henry,  but also his older brother Matthew Iley White,  were members of the river police force – both with rather a chequered history.

The Nominal Roll of the Tyne River Police showed that Henry, a single man, joined 9th January 1882.  By the time of his promotion seven months later in July, he was married.  The Police Defaulters Book recorded his misconduct for assaulting a seaman A. W. Hanson and other irregularities on 11th June 1889.  Henry was fined 2/6 and transferred to Walker Division at his own expense.  The Nominal Roll of 1904 noted his age as 42 and that he had 22 years of service, with a wage of 29/6. 

With three of my Danson ancestors working as POSTMEN,  I  upgraded my Ancestry subscription recently, so I could access their Post Office Records.   All I got was a name, date of appointment and place, so I can't really say it added anything to my family story. Also if you are looking for a popular local name, it will be difficult to confirm which is "your" entry.  Still we all consult records in hope of finding something worthwhile!

TEACHERS  -   School Records are the place to look - with Log Books recording daily  school life, and School Board Minute Books and Education Committee Minute Books recording appointments - and dismissals!   Here is an example from a school log book: 

1873 - At Glenholm, Peeblesshire, a school inspector reported "This small school was taught by Mr Grieve in an intelligent, painstaking and efficient manner". We would all love to find such a  testimonial on an ancestor.  

 Archive image courtesy of the Heritage Hub, Hawick 

 So many of these records are not available online, and the message is -  search the online  catalogue of the Archive Centre relevant to your research,  and use their enquiry service if you cannot visit it.

Occupation Records are  a fascinating example of how family history can take you in so many diverse directions. 


Onto P for Poor Law Records 

Thursday, 16 April 2015

A-Z Challenge: N for Newspapers & Names

A-Z of Family History Sources & Stories 
Join me on this A-Z journey to explore the fascinating records 
that can  enhance your family history research and writing.

NEWSPAPERS -  I love browsing through old newspapers.  They are goldmines, full of snippets of information that give a contemporary  eye view.  This is not textbook history but it is full of vigour on many varied aspects of life at the time. 

Nationally British Newspapers Online 1750-1953  is an invaluable resource available  on can purchase pay-as-you-view credits, so do not need to take out an expensive subscription. 

 I was delighted  to find  entries on individuals in my  family history  who were leading very ordinary lives.  For example:
  • A notice of a sale  of land by my Danson ancestors.
  • The appointment of my g.g. grandfather Henry Danson as toll collector  at a local toll bridge.
  • A death announcement of my g.g.g.grandmother Elizabeth Danson with the lovely epitaph  "Betty, widow of the late Mr. Henry Danson, yeoman, Trap Estate, Carleton, near Poulton-le-Fylde. She was much esteemed, and will be greatly regretted by a large circle of acquaintances".  I knew little about Betty, but this description brought her out of the  shadows and I built a blog post around this memory of her. See it HERE
  • On a sad note, there was a coroner's report on an ancestral connection - Haydon Lounds,  coach builder, who died of lead poisoning.
An important point - I found  these entries by doing a "county" search, rather than  a "place" search  and the results were in newspaper titles I would not normally have considered as covering my Lancashire village.  So it is worth widening a search beyond the obvious. 

So if you have British ancestors, take a look at this resource - it should be high on your list for searches.   You could find some interesting entries relating to your family.  

My local archive centre holds 25 titles of local newpapers, with the oldest dated 1804. The earlier local newspapers contained little local news, but were full of headlines on “Foreign Intelligence”, “London Intelligence” and “Colonial News” with reports on parliamentary debates, court cases, military campaigns, society events, royal visits etc. Local news usually featured under a heading for the individual town or village.

After the Newspaper Stamp Duty was abolished in 1855, the prices of newspapers dropped and towns rushed to print their own. As national newspapers emerged in the later 19th
century, local papers concentrated more on events in their immediate area.

No doubt because of the cost, notices of births, marriages & deaths were often short merely stating - “On the 1st inst, a son named...."with the mother’s name not always given.  Entries from the landed gentry and professions inevitably predominated.  Reports on weddings and funerals and obituaries of prominent people were often lengthy.  Death notices came from a more varied background and could include information on the circumstances of death.

Accident reports were graphic.  Reports during the First World War are particularly poignant as pages were filled with profiles of casualties. 

Advertisements, generally on the front page for maximum impact, offer a valuable source of information on all aspects of life. In “The Kelso Mail” of January 1804 the main advert informed readers of the signals that would be made across Berwickshire and Roxburghshire on the enemy’s fleet appearing off the coast”, with the threat of a Napoleonic invasion.

Regular features throughout the years included railway timetables, market prices, local shipping agents offering passages to America, Canada and Australia, notices of farm sales, balls and talks, bankruptcies, tradesmen, and new arrivals at shops from the latest novel by Charles Dickens to India rubber boots!.

You can spend many an hour browsing through old editions and are bound to find something quirky  to enliven the writing of your family history.

NAMES - what is the background story to  the names of your ancestors? 

I have always been fascinated by the fashion of Christian  names, from the 17th century Puritan influences that made popular  Faith, Hope,  Charity and Patience to the current resurgence of Biblical names such as Daniel and Noah.  In the 19th century,  many a child was named Albert after Queen Victoria's husband, or Florence after Florence Nightingale.
Maria Rawcliffe

I like the old fashioned name of Jennet which features in my family and have always wondered at my great grandmother's name of Maria.  It seemed rather exotic for the daughter of an Ag. Lab when her sisters were more mundanely called  Anne, Jane, Margaret, Martha, and Alice.  Then I read in "The Guinness Book of Names" by Leslie Alan Dunking, that Maria was 15th in the list of popular girl's names in England in 1850. 

For family historians,  the traditional naming pattern of Scotland and the north of England can help  confirm if you are on the right family i.e. eldest son named after paternal grandfather, eldest daughter after maternal grandmother, second son after maternal grandfather, second daughter after paternal grandmother.  Though it can lead to a proliferation of the same  name across a large family of sons and cousins - in one of my branches there were six John Brynings alive   in 1797 - grandfather, one  son and  four grandchildren of other sons and  daughters   A clear head needed to identify "your" particular one!

This tradition seemed to die out at the turn of the 19th-20th century when other names appeared that did not survive too long beyond the early decades - Ethel, Doris, Edith, Winifred, Olive, Gertrude, Hilda and Elsie.  In my husband's family c.1908-14.  three daughters were christened Ivy, Lily and Violet.  

Elizabeth and Margaret abounded in my school classroom - royal influence no doubt. In the  Scottish Borders, surnames can  be adopted as Christian names, so it is not unusual to get a Scott Elliot and an Elliot Scott.  

I could go on for ever!  I like to keep an eye out for the more unusual names - one being an Amethyst who, despite her opulent  sounding name,   was unfortunately  an inmate in the Jedburgh Poorhouse.  A fellow researcher in my local archives made sure we all knew his delight at finding an Horatio in the family in the early 19th century -  named after Lord Horatio Nelson he liked to think.    

Onto O for Occupational Records 

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

A-Z Challenge: M for Mortcloths, Militias, & Much More

A-Z of Family History Sources & Stories 
Join me on this A-Z journey to explore the fascinating records 
that can  enhance your family history research and writing.

MORTCLOTH RECORDS - A mortcloth was a funeral pall,  draped over the coffin during the service. The   payment of a fee to hire one from the church was  sometimes  recorded in old parish or kirk session records.  Prior to compulsory registration of deaths in 1855, It can often be the only evidence that a death has occurred. I must admit I am unsure whether this was  just a Scottish custom or more widespread. 

Smailholm Parish  Mortcloth Book (1822-1847), held at the Heritage Hub, Hawick. 

MEDICAL TERMS - are you stuck to understand a cause of death on a certificate?   Then take a look at  which explains medical terms.

MILITIA LISTS  - Was your  male ancestor aged around 20-30 in the period of the Napoleonic Wars (1790's-1815)?  Then he might well appear on the Militia Lists, whereby each parish was charged with setting up a volunteer force in the  event of a French invasion.  The lists may give little more than a name, address and occupation but, as with all archives,  there is a fascination in seeing actual handwriting relating to an ancestor, written during his  lifetime.  They are also particularly noteworthy in pre-dating  the first published census of 1841, so may be  the only record of an ordinary man.
Militia List, Castleon Parish, Roxburghshire, 1797.
Other lists can be more informative with details of age and occupation

MIDDLE NAMES   - I like middle names as they can often be a big clue, not only  in confirming that you've  found the right person, but also in alighting on the possible   maiden name of a mother or grandmother.  For instance I was once looking on the internet  for a George Hogarth from Scotland who emigrated to Canada.  I found him amongst many George Hogarths, because of his mother's distinctive surname used as his middle name.   In my own family,  my uncle Harry Danson had his grandmother's maiden name Rawcliffe. as his middle name.

MAPS - Are you wanting to find a map of where your ancestor lived in Scotland?  Then take a look at the website of the National Library of Scotland at  Its map collection is the  largest in Scotland with over 2 million items, many of which you can download.      

MONEY VALUES  - I like to  find out how respective money values over the centuries   have changed and use  

Prior to the Act of Union in 1707, Scotland had its own currency, so for more information see 

PLUS SO MUCH MORE  such as:  Marriage Bonds and Marriage Certificates,  Message Boards, Monumental Inscriptions, Military Records -  I could go on and on,,,,,,,,,

Archive images courtesy of the Heritage Hub, Hawick 


Onto N for Newspapers and Names  

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

A-Z Challenge - L for Letters, Leisure & Local

A-Z of Family History Sources & Stories 
Join me on this A-Z journey to explore the fascinating records 
that can  enhance your family history research and writing.

LETTERS from the past let us hear the thoughts and emotions of our ancestors and are a potent legacy.  After the death of my parents,  I came across letters written just after their marriage when my father was working away from home, and a few years later during wartime.  It is very moving to read them;   they are amongst my family treasures and the basis for many a family story.  

But what of the future - in these days of text messages and e-mail, how many personal letters did you write or receive in the past year?   I can see letters holding a key rarity value  for the next generation of family historians.

A letter from my father written in September 1944 
after the Allied troops had entered Paris.

Even more poignant is a letter dated  20th August 1916 written by my great uncle George to his brother Frank.  Three weeks later George was killed at the Battle of the Somme.

LEISURE  - how did our ancestors spend their  free time?    Were they members of a society e.g. sport, music, drama, chess, crafts. etc?  Are there old programmes amongst family papers? 

Here is Earlston Clown Band in the Scottish Borders - all appropriately dressed and ready to take part in a peace parade in 1918.  The photograph is in the collection  of Auld Earlston, my local historical society.

                My aunt Edith and my mother Kathlee Danson  are the little girls
at the front of this parade c.1912.
A concert poster in  the collection of the Heritage Hub, Hawick.

Think LOCAL - Libraries, Archive Centres, Newspapers, Museums, Publications and Websites  - where would we be without them?  They are the foundation to finding out more about how and where our ancestors lived.  

I have quite a collection of Local Publications on Poulton-le-Fylde, Lancashire (my ancestral home),   especially the compilations of old photographs, which can do so much to enhance the picture of our background.  As a result I found a photograph of the street where my great grandparents lived (since demolished to make way for a small shopping  centre), plus a photograph of my great uncle in a football team before the First World War. 

In the 1861 census, my husband's ancestor, master mariner John Moffet was off shore.  South Shields Musuem had  picture of the very ship - Brotherly Love. 

Onto M for: 
Mortcloths, Militia Lists & Medicine 
Copyright © 2015 · Susan Donaldson.  All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

A-Z Challenge: K for Kirk Sessions

A-Z of Family History Sources & Stories 
Join me on this A-Z journey to explore the fascinating records 
that can  enhance your family history research and writing.

KIRK SESSION RECORDS  of the Church of Scotland  give a unique and colourful  social commentary on our ancestors' lives,  as they deal with   issues of swearing, quarrelling, drunkenness, church non-attendance, breaking the sabbath,  bastardy and illegitimacy, witchery and much more.

The Kirk Session, made up of the Minister and the Elders of the parish,  was the local court of the Church of Scotland set up after the Reformation  of 1560 and the break with the Catholic Church of Rome.  Its duties were to maintain good order amongst its congregation, administer discipline and supervise the moral and religious condition of the parish. 

In the cases of  Illegitimacy and Irregular Marriages,  the records may  reveal the name of the child’s father following an exhaustive investigation by the kirk authorities as well as a subsequent baptism and marriage.

The Minute Books  also recorded payments paid out to individuals and income from individuals. As the Kirk Session, together with the heritors (local landowners), ran the parish,  you will also find   records relating to poor relief, the local school, hospital and alms houses.  Other records include proclamations of banns, communion rolls, seat rent books and  the hire of the mortcloth which was used to cover the coffin prior to burial and might be the only reference to a person’s death. 

The Kirk Session's influence outwith  the church ceased in 1845 when  parochial boards took over responsibility for matters such as poor relief, with elected parish councils  introduced in 1894. 

Many kirk session records have been made available in digital format at local archive centres across Scotland. For more information see the National Records of Scotland website HERE. 

 Lauder Kirk in the Scottish Borders
Onto L for:    Letters, Leisure & Local

Copyright © 2015 · Susan Donaldson.  All Rights Reserved.