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By Simon Fowler
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Simon Fowler
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ADVENTURES IN THE STACKS
There are a huge range of records available which contain material that might add something to your knowledge of your ancestors and the world they lived in. Many records are well known and well used, like the census or army service records, but most are hardly used by researchers. In this chapter we will look at three different sets of records that may well mention your forebears: council records, records of occupations and records of organisations. I'll almost guarantee that you will find a new lead or two here to follow up.
Volumes of council minutes can be found on the shelves in many archive reading rooms. As well as being decorative they are a surprisingly useful genealogical resource, with many thousands of names. You might be able to find material about councillors and council workers, as well as about ordinary citizens who were affected by the decisions made by the council, such as the award of a scholarship to a grammar school or removal to a new flat under a slum clearance scheme. It is a shame that these records are not better known because there is a fair chance that your ancestors will appear in the minutes, or if you are interested in the history of your house there may well be entries about that as well.
The history of British local government goes back to medieval times and the earliest records date from then. In York, one of England's oldest cities, for example:
The civic archives begin with the Henry II charter in 1155. The York Memorandum Book is the earliest record of Council meetings and provides an unparalleled view of life in 14th and 15th century York. From 1476 to the present day we have a record of every single meeting of the City Council in a continuous series of House Books & Minute Books.
Local government was arguably at its most important in the eighty or so years from the 1860s, when councils began to tackle the social evils that lay all around. Public health was improved with the introduction of sewerage and the worst slums were demolished. Schools and colleges were built to provide an education for children. Libraries were opened and trams ventured on the paved and tarmacked roads. The most visible sign of this confidence is the town halls, which still dominate the skyline in many northern cities. Sidney Webb once described the scope of local government by imagining a town councillor who would:
walk along the municipal pavement, lit by the municipal gas and cleansed by the municipal brooms with municipal water, and seeing by the municipal clock in the municipal market place that he is too early to meet his children coming from the municipal school hard by the county lunatic asylum, and municipal hospital, will use the national telegraph system to tell them not to walk through the municipal park, but to come by the municipal tram to meet him in the municipal art gallery, museum and library, were he intends to consult some of the national publications in order to prepare for his next speech in the municipal town hall ...
Councils varied greatly in size from parishes and rural district councils, which might only have a few thousand people in their area, to the London County Council, which had an economy larger than those of many European states. Powers were shared between rural district, urban district and borough councils, which dealt with most local matters, and county councils, which were responsible for countywide services such as education, roads and libraries. In addition, there were eighty-three county boroughs – mostly large towns and cities – which had all the powers and responsibilities of county councils.
Councils were, of course, directed by councillors assisted by increasingly professional officers such as the chief clerk and medical officer of health. Councillors came from a variety of backgrounds. In the smaller rural councils they tended to be local landowners; in urban areas, a mixture of professional men and tradesmen. An increasing number of women and working-class men were elected, although the Labour Party only became a force in local politics in the 1920s. Even so, local politics remained largely non-partisan. Councillors were also more involved in the everyday running of the council than would be expected today, investigating cases of need and providing help, either from their own pocket or from local charities, where necessary. The best place to research councillors is through local newspapers. It is also worth checking whether the local studies library or record office has collections of election literature, as these can make for fascinating reading.
Councils were traditionally run by committees, with a committee for each function – education, public health and so on – reporting to the full council, which only met a few times a year. In addition, there may be ad hoc committees set up to deal with particular problems, such as war relief in the First World War or air-raid precautions in the Second. Discussions at these meetings were likely to be reported by local newspapers, but the decisions themselves, together with any reports from officials or sub-committees requested by the committee, were recorded in the minutes. Until the 1970s, at least, these minutes were printed and bound, generally with one volume a year or one for each quarter. They are also well indexed with the names of individuals or the addresses of properties under discussion. So it is easy to go through them year by year to see whether your ancestor or house appears. The amount of detail varies depending on the size of the authority and the importance of the committee. Minutes of full council meetings are likely to be less informative than those of the committees or sub-committees. Again, the smaller the authority the more likely you are to find out about individual people or properties. Another factor is the type of committee: those which had direct responsibility for staff, such as the Education Committee, might well record the appointment, promotion and resignation of staff. Minutes of other committees could include lists of payments to local contractors, possibly for resurfacing roads or painting council houses.
For example, Twickenham Borough Council's Education Committee agreed on 30 December 1926 to the appointment of Miss Kate Piercy to Trafalgar School Girls' Department as an assistant teacher. They accepted the resignation of Mr W.R. Buxton as a school attendance officer. He had been on a salary of £162 per annum. The other officers were Mr A. Wooldridge on a salary of £150 and Mr H. Winslet, £75 (half time). It was also agreed to recruit a new school attendance officer and general enquiry officer at a salary of £180, 'with an allowance of £4 per annum for the provision of a bicycle'. Mr Wooldridge's salary was to be increased to £160 from April and he was to be offered incremental increases of £10 until his salary reached £200 plus £4 allowance for a bicycle.
As well as minute books there may well be reports, maps and plans, correspondence and photographs. They are more likely to survive for the larger authorities. Hundreds of thousands of files created by the London County Council (LCC) survive, for example, at the London Metropolitan Archives. At the other end of the scale, only four minute books, dating between 1894 and 1934, and a finance ledger for 1930 to 1934 survive at the Essex Record Office for Belchamp Rural District Council, which looked after two-dozen parishes in northern Essex. Such files can cover all aspects of a council's activities, from planning to public assistance via policing and licensing to libraries. They are generally arranged by departments or committees. Online catalogues or the Access to Archives database may be able to help; otherwise you should to talk to staff at the county record office where the records are kept. More recent records may still be with the council itself, so you may need to contact them directly. In addition, files relating to particular individuals, for example applicants for university scholarships, are likely to be closed for seventy-five years or longer, although you may well find a summary in the minutes.
Over the years councils gained new powers (or had them taken away). As the Poor Law withered from the 1890s, in many places the boards of Poor Law guardians became little more than adjuncts of the local council. Thus it is not surprising that when the guardians were finally abolished in 1930, their responsibilities for workhouses were largely transferred to local authorities, where they were renamed public assistance institutions. However, they lost control of the hospitals they had run, often former workhouse infirmaries, to the new National Health Service in 1948. In addition, they maintained local registry offices in association with the Registrar-General and the General Register Office in Somerset House. Councillors also kept a kept a close eye on the police through police committees and were involved in a host of other initiatives set up by central government, such as pension committees which administered the new system of old-age pensions when they were introduced in 1908. All this is reflected in the records.
School Log Books and Registers
Some of the most used records at local record offices are school log books and registers. Introduced in 1862, log books are a weekly record of occurrences at the school compiled by the head teacher. Even if the individual child does not feature (and it is unlikely they would unless they were being punished for some misdemeanour) you can get a fascinating glimpse of their experiences, such as school trips, sports days, mass absenteeism during harvest time, when the children would help bring the harvest in, and wakes week, when industrial towns went en masse to the seaside. The arrival and departure of teachers is generally also given and there may be comments about their behaviour. Registers are less informative, being a note of attendance day by day, although occasionally explanations of absence are given.
Some log books or registers may have been retained by the school, so you may have to contact them directly. Records may be closed for seventy-five years or longer.
Councils were responsible for maintaining electoral registers. These registers aredirectories, they generally only confirm what you know already. Occasionally they might provide additional information about how the individual is eligible to vote. This is normally because they were a rate payer or they paid a certain amount of rent each year. Most local studies libraries or archives have runs of these registers back to 1871, when they were first kept, although there may well be gaps. The British Library has sets of electoral rolls from 1948, which are being digitised by Findmypast and should be online during 2012.
Of course the majority of our ancestors worked. However, with some exceptions it is very hard to find out very much about their time in the workforce. In part this was because most people were paid cash-in-hand, so the only records which might help are cashbooks maintained by factories, farmers or shopkeepers, and few of these survive. Information about individuals who worked in the large industrial concerns, which employed hundreds of the thousands of our ancestors by the end of the nineteenth century, is also hard to come by. One exception is for railway and Post Office records, many of which are online at Ancestry.
Flora Thompson described how the men of Juniper Hill (Lark Rise) were paid:
On Friday evenings when work was done, the men trooped up to the farmhouse for their wages. They were handed out of a window by the farmer himself and acknowledged by a rustic scraping of feet and pulling of forelocks ... he was not a bad-hearted man and had no idea he was sweating his labourers. Did they not get the full standard wage with no deductions for standing by in bad weather? How they managed to live and keep their families on such a sum was their own affair.
However, it is possible to find out about those in the services and some trades, like dockyard works and the Metropolitan Police, where records survive because they were being paid from the public monies, which had to be accounted for. As a result, most records we now use to research soldiers or dockyard artificers – certainly for men before the mid to late nineteenth century – relate to the payment of wages and pensions and individual entitlements to them. Army and navy musters, for example, recorded payments to soldiers and sailors together with any deductions taken from their already low wages. In Nelson's navy this might have included 'slop clothes [basic uniform], trusses for ruptures, buying of dead men's clothes, hammocks and wages remitted ashore'. In addition, there are voluminous pension registers recording the payment of pensions month by month. Also, service records contain detailed figures of the exact number of days a man served, and where he served, to aid calculation of the pension to which he was entitled.
Another two exceptions to this lack of information are as follows. Firstly, trades and professions where applicants had to demonstrate their eligibility to join and sometimes pay a fee to maintain their membership, whether they were bakers, barristers or brewers, tend to be recorded. Secondly, a reasonable number of people had to buy a licence in order to undertake particular trades, such as victuallers' licences which had to be acquired by anybody wanting to run a public house. If the landlord kept a 'disorderly house', as the phrase was, then the magistrates could take the licence away. Thus, where they survive the records can reveal something about the individual and his background.
In general the best source for researching occupations may be the census returns between 1841 and 1911, where there should be a description for each man, woman and child. The least detailed entries are for 1841, when only the briefest of entries might be given, with the most informative in 1911, in which you can get a fairly good idea of what each individual did. From 1851, you may come across entries for employers indicating how many people they employed, such as 'Baker (master employing 4 men, 2 women)' or how much land they farmed, such as 'Farmer of 220 acres (employing 11 labourers)'.
Over 1.5 million separate occupations are recorded in the 1881 census for England and Wales, for a population of 26 million, although many represent slight variations. Agricultural worker, agricultural servant and agricultural labourer, for example, were very similar. Also, a few people had a unique occupation, such as the man who claimed to have been a 'retired opium smuggler', but many reflected the specialist nature of particular trades and industries. Potteries around Stoke-on-Trent, for example, employed a huge range of specialists each with their own seemingly bizarre name, from 'ark man' to 'wedger', via the 'glost rubber' and, everybody's favourite, the 'sagger bottom knocker'.
Men and women might well have had several jobs at the same time, which helps to explain why an individual's occupation can change widely between censuses and on certificates. Keepers of alehouses often combined running the pub with work as a small tradesman or carpenter, using earnings from the licensed premises to supplement the family income. Occasionally multi-occupations are given in the census returns. In the 1881 census Matthew Woollard found many combinations, including: 'Publican & Pheasant Breeder', 'Shoe Maker & Coal Merchant', 'Grocer & Chairmaker' and, dubiously, 'Butcher and Rat Catcher'.
There was also a class of people who were at best semi-employed, although it is hard to identify these people from the census. No Victorian town scene was without its half-starved 'idler' trying to make ends meet by looking after horses for an hour or two¸ carrying bags or wearing a sandwich board while walking the streets. In the Soul of London, published in 1905, Ford Madox Hueffer describes one such unfortunate:
In a patch of shadow left in a vacant space, you will hardly make out the figure of a forlorn figure standing still. With a pendent placard on his chest, announcing one of the ills of the flesh, he offers for sale things you would think nobody would want to buy, or indistinguishable quavers of melody that nobody could stay to hear.
In the early 1890s the social researcher Charles Booth found that about 35 per cent of Londoners fell into the category of the unemployed or semi-employed. Out of the eight classes he identified on his famous poverty map, three had no secure employment. In particular, families in class C were:
Intermittent earning. 18s to 21s per week for a moderate family. The victims of competition and on them falls with particular severity the weight of recurrent depressions of trade. Labourers, poorer artisans and street sellers. This irregularity of employment may show itself in the week or in the year: stevedores and waterside porters may secure only one of two days' work in a week, whereas labourers in the building trades may get only eight or nine months in a year.
One of the few records relating to employment that may be available is the apprenticeship indenture, which bound young men (or occasionally women) to a master for a number of years in order to learn a trade. Once they had passed to the satisfaction of the master or the guild which regulated the trade they could ply their trade as journeymen, before eventually becoming masters themselves if they were wealthy or skilled enough. It was a simple system which developed in medieval times and continues to operate, to a degree, today.
Excerpted from Family History by Simon Fowler. Copyright © 2012 Simon Fowler. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Adventures in the Stacks,
Chapter 2 Family History on the Web,
Chapter 3 Printed Sources,
Chapter 4 Leaping Brick Walls,
Chapter 5 Distant Ancestors,
Chapter 6 Deep Roots: Genealogy and the Wider World,
Appendix 1 Reading Old Handwriting,
Appendix 2 Useful Addresses,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I think Mr. Fowler tries to do too much in one book. How our ancestors lived and the laws governing them in their time interesting. Where to look for records good. However mixing the two only confused me,