A family tree that consists of names, dates, places and occupations should only be a starting point in family history. It is curiosity about the gritty details of forebears’ lives that has kept TV shows such as Who Do You Think You Are? going for season after season and makes genealogy websites big business. Digitisation of billions of records and archives’ digital copying services mean it is now easier than ever to put flesh on the bones of long-dead ancestors. Admittedly, some of the best sources are for scoundrels, but, as F Scott Fitzgerald wrote: “What people are ashamed of usually makes a good story.”
Here are five tips for putting more history into your family story — drawing on the author’s experiences of 20 years researching ancestors from Britain and Ireland. Note that some of the subscription sites mentioned, such as Ancestry, may be accessible for free via local libraries.
All news is good news (for genealogists)
Newspapers are among the best resources for conveying a picture of ancestors’ lives and cover people of all backgrounds and social classes. The British Newspaper Archive (also accessible via Findmypast) provides online access to over 50 million searchable pages from newspapers from Britain and Ireland, many dating from between the mid-18th and mid-20th centuries. You might find obituaries, wedding reports, ads for family businesses and relatives hailed for sporting wins or acts of heroism. It is also common to find relatives named as criminals or as victims or witnesses of crimes or accidents.
In that darker category is Thomas Grant Cotmore, my 5x great-grandfather and a pen-cutter in Lambeth in the early 19th century. Several newspapers covered the coroner’s inquest in September 1823 which heard that Cotmore, then aged 52, had “called upon” a woman in her first-floor room. Sometime later, her common-law husband walked in to find them “in a very indecent situation”. After a commotion, Cotmore ended up “senseless” at the bottom of the stairs with his underwear around his heels. He was brought to his home where a surgeon’s assistant found him dead and his wife “in a wretched state, bordering on madness, supporting his head between her knees.” Although there had been suspicions of murder, the jury accepted that he tripped and fell down the stairs while drunk after Thompson ordered him out.
Occasionally, articles feature photographs or physical descriptions of ancestors you haven’t “seen” before. It is only a tidbit, but an article in The Globe states that my ancestor Lucy Garcia (c. 1783-1865) “for many years had the undisputed reputation of being the handsomest Jewess who had ever set foot in the City of London within the memory of the oldest living man”.
Articles may even record accents, patterns of speech and mannerisms. A report from the Sheffield Daily Telegraph records the Yorkshire dialect of my 6x great-grandfather Adam Ashton, a carpenter who died in 1809. It notes: “He never would at dinner have his trencher changed after eating pudding or sweet pies, saying, ‘Wot’s t’use on’t; oi have noa chambers i’ my belly.'”
Cast about for criminals and convicts
Criminals were often among the best documented people of their day. Judicial records along with newspaper reports may provide descriptions and verbatim speech from relatives who would have left scarcely a trace if they had been law-abiding. Many records are available via Ancestry and Findmypast. Others can be viewed for free at sites including Old Bailey Online and Digital Panopticon. Details in criminal records may unexpectedly help to solve family mysteries. For example, details in an Old Bailey trial from 1816 show that the convicted man was the brother of an ancestor for whom I have found no birth record. The convict’s birth record enabled me to trace the brothers’ family back for several generations to immigrants from Portugal.
In another case, I suspected that Henry “Besant”, transported to New South Wales in 1835, was my ancestor Henry Bessant but couldn’t be sure until I found a letter from his family to the colonial secretary in the National Archives. The story of Henry’s transportation had not been passed down in the family, perhaps due to shame. The letter was signed by Bessant’s daughter Sarah Soffe, my 3x great-grandmother, among other relatives. Convict Indents, digitised at Ancestry, reveal that Bessant, from Hampshire, was a shepherd and butcher, 5ft2in tall, with brown hair and eyes, a “brown and much freckled” complexion and scars on his upper lip and left thumb. He could read and write and was married with four sons and two daughters. He stole 15 sheep from landowner William Sloane Stanley and was sentenced to transportation for life, aged 47.
It was fruitless but reflects well on community spirit that, prior to his being sent overseas, 55 inhabitants of Bessant’s village signed a petition to the Home Secretary to commute his sentence to imprisonment, testifying to his good character.
Eleven years after he was transported, Bessant’s wife, siblings and children wrote to the colonial secretary. They said: “Henry Bessant was unfortunately led into the crime of sheep stealing for which he was convicted through a short acquaintance of bad associates — that previous to the commission of the offence he was in the service of one employer for the long period of 35 years and always bore the character of an Honest and faithful servant and strove hard to support his large family and bring them up to religious and industrious habits.”
They urged that Bessant should be allowed “to return to his native country in his old age that himself and wife may pass their few declining days in the solace of each other and enable their family to cherish them”. After officials in the colony reported favourably on his conduct, he was granted a conditional pardon. This did not allow him to return to Britain, however, and he died in Sydney in 1866.
Where there’s a will . . .
Wills can provide some of the richest details in family history, setting down relationships and details of people’s occupations, property, friendships and even family rows. They can also bridge gaps in other records — for example, a will might show that the person making the will, the testator, was the parent of an ancestor for whom no birth record survives. It can therefore be worth looking at wills speculatively, checking the wills of people with a certain surname in a certain area to confirm or disprove ties to your line. Many wills have been digitised and are available via the National Archives’ website and commercial sites such as Ancestry but others have not and can only be viewed by visiting regional archives or ordering copies. Findmypast has “abstracts” that preserve genealogical information from many Irish wills lost in the fire at the Public Records Office of Ireland in 1922.
My Bridge ancestors lived in Lancashire in northern England until William Bridge, a merchant, moved to Ireland around the 1660s. So it was on the off-chance that I looked at the 1680 will, on Ancestry, of a Timothy Bridge, proved at the Archdeaconry Court of Middlesex — a long way from Lancashire and Ireland. The will proves that Timothy was the brother of my ancestor William and had ties to London. Frustratingly, it doesn’t state his occupation but does show that he left cash bequests of over £400, including £10 to the diplomat Sir William Temple and to Temple’s wife, sister and son to buy mourning rings. It is not clear how Timothy knew the Temples, but, as the son of a yeoman farmer, it is possible he worked for Sir William or somehow benefited from his patronage. The Temples owned land in Ireland so it is possible the Bridges met the Temples in Ireland or moved there through their connection to the family.
Why is this significant? Sir William Temple was the patron of the satirist and Gulliver’s Travels author Jonathan Swift and employed him as his secretary. Timothy Bridge’s will leaves money for a mourning ring to “Mrs Swift” who may have been Jonathan’s mother. Sir William was also an adviser to King Charles II and negotiated the marriage of William of Orange to Princess Mary of England. The connections revealed through Timothy’s will illustrate the close ties that “ordinary” families sometimes had to movers and shakers. They also highlight the value of looking “sideways”, at siblings or cousins of ancestors.
Look beyond the standard toolkit
It is easy to get comfortable using the same old genealogy websites and civil registration records. Libraries and archives hold many other records useful for family history. For example, estate papers may include information about tenants, servants and household suppliers, as well as the landowners. And fire insurance records such as those held at the London Metropolitan Archives may help you track ancestors’ addresses and occupations over time. The Discovery catalogue is a good starting point for finding record sets and records at the National Archives and over 2,500 other UK repositories. Likewise, libraries of organisations such as the Society of Genealogists and local and regional family history societies hold material not available on sites such as Ancestry.
Occasionally a simple keyword search in a library’s online catalogue leads to gold. Through a catalogue search of different family surnames, I found that the National Library of Ireland holds hundreds of letters to and from my ancestor Thomas Kemmis, an ambitious lawyer in Dublin in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, including letters from politicians, fellow lawyers, clients and relatives. These don’t only give insights into Irish history around the time of the Rebellion of 1798 and Act of Union, but also shed light on family dynamics and his wife Nancy’s concerns about his workload and preoccupation with money.
In one letter, dated September 15, 1779, Nancy writes: “I think it very hard you cannot spare a little time to rest at this time of the year — I do not look upon fortune in the light you do nor can I bring miself to think that happiness consists in what we possess to be sure some is necessary but the more we have the more cares & troubles it brings you will say these are rom[antic] nosiens but I assure you they are not & I think I should be much happier if you was not so anxious about this world don’t be angry now all I say I shoud be happier to see you now cheerfull & good humourd than if you were possesd of ten times more than you are at present [. . .]”
Grill the living
Speaking to relatives about their lives, other relatives they remember and family history more broadly should be a no-brainer, but it is easy to leave it too late. Some forward-looking family historians interview older relatives or encourage them to write down memories or complete a questionnaire. It is also worth asking relatives, including cousins you might find via genealogy forums or DNA tests, whether they already have any family trees, documents or photographs they can share copies of. Of course, any unsourced trees should be treated with caution until the facts can be substantiated.
It was as a result of speaking to relatives about my interest in family history, that cousins kindly sent me a contemporary eyewitness account by my grandfather George Allman Bridge of the famous Christmas Truce of 1914. I had been aware since childhood that he was present at the truce and had read reminiscences about it that he dictated to my aunt in older age. However, I had no idea that he had written anything at the time, and his Boxing Day letter is, inevitably, more immediate and evocative.
In the letter to friends, written on the Western Front on December 26, 1914, my grandfather, a medical officer attached to the Somerset Light Infantry, writes: “The Germans and our men had been singing each other various songs the night before including Tipperary as well as Xmas hymns & the men on both sides were encoring each other. Then yesterday morning they were not firing so I went up to our trench & saw a few Germans near their trenches & some of ours near our trenches walking about. So we went out & started getting in some of our poor fallen. We met half way where we agreed neither side would go beyond. They were very free with their cigars & cigarettes & wanted to know when it would be over. They rather disappointed me as they seemed to [sic] decent to be these Germans. However they are Saxons not either Prussians or Bavarians. They brought us one poor officer quite a long way [for burial]. We brought in quite a good many. I sometimes do the chaplain’s work and take a burial service if there is no clergyman to be got [. . .] The weather is very hard now, it froze hard the last two nights & it is now snowing.”
The image at the top of the article is “Squatting plump on an unsuspected cat in your chair!!” by Isaac Cruikshank, after GM Woodward, early 19th century. Boston Public Library, via Digital Commonwealth.