Meeting the Ancients by Daphne Pearson

Meeting the Ancestors – a talk about researching family history

Daphne Pearson

Meeting of 10th April 2014

We get more interested in our own histories as we get older, but by then it is often too late to track down all the family memories. Daphne suggested we should be digitising our old family photos now, or at least writing names on the back of them before identities get forgotten. It is amazing how much changes over just a few generations, keeping track of these changes and what has happened to our families is something the census can help us research. To show how quickly life has changed, Daphne told us about her great aunt who went to work on weaving looms too far away to walk back home every night, so had to sleep by her loom and take enough food (only bread and cheese) for the whole week.

You will see your family history following national trends such as women going to work and children having to go to school. The census tracks jobs, ages, number of lodgers etc. Family fortunes can also be tracked – the area, size of the house, number of servants, occupation etc.

The census is taken every ten years (apart from 1941 due to the War and the 1931 records were burnt so there is a big gap). Census details are sealed for 100 years to ensure those giving the information have nothing revealed that they do not want known whilst alive, which encourages honesty in form filling. The forms from the early censuses were not kept and little information was asked compared to today. The first useful one is 1841 (and included the number of windows and dogs!)

The census was taken by enumerators; in 1891 they delivered a form to each house a few days before Sunday 5 April 1891 and collected it the following day. If you were staying somewhere else you could be missed off totally. The forms were then sorted and the information copied into the books we see today, mistakes in the copying are common. Other misunderstandings can arise: a stepson could be called ‘son-in-law’ as that was how he was viewed, and sister-in-laws were often called ‘sister’ as they became part of the family. Even into the 1920s illiteracy was common and children often filled the census in for parents. Remember that your relatives may have chosen not to fill in the form accurately – Daphne found 1891 occupations of ‘tiger slayer’ and ‘dolls eye weaver’!

Births, marriages and deaths registration was introduced in 1837 (although not compulsory until 1875) but many parishes have records going back beyond that date. Note that the listing may well be for a burial date a few days later than the death and baptism a few days early. Also, before 1752 the year began on Lady Day (trying to get the calendar back in line caused ‘give us back our days!’ riots as the date went straight from 2nd to 14th September). 25th December saw a high number of weddings as you were guaranteed a day off. A Church of England marriage did not mean this was your religion but that the vicar was the only one who could carry out weddings.

If your relative was in the forces, a teacher or nurse or was jailed you will find good records. Much is now on the internet, including Forest of Dean parish records and the brilliant Old Bailey website (Daphne found a relative on there, but as a witness not criminal!). Ancestry or Orange are good for births, marriages and deaths. You will come to a dead end in research with an illegitimate ancestor; IVF, surrogacy and the woman’s right not to name the baby’s father will create dead ends in the future.

Daphne is author of Backward Glances – memories of the Forest between 1920 and 1950. Signed copies were purchased for £5 for Age Concern.

Please do come to our June meeting which follows on from this, with Brian revealing what he has found out about Bicknor families from our own census. CS