Working lives: choices, opportunities and that beyond our control

As I reflect on a tumultuous year in which Your Local History has gradually grown from a idea into a successful business; in which my old career was shattered by the spending review; in which I have spent many months in an 'un-chosen' job and finally achieved my longstanding dream of working full time in an archive; I have come to reflect on how lucky I have been to have had so many career opportunities - and how the working lives of my ancestors differed. 

Leaving aside the fact that, until relatively recently, as a female I would have had a very different education – if much at all – I have already had a far more changeable career than many of my ancestors, and much more choice over its direction. The old adage ‘a job for life’ has had little relevance to my personal experiences.

A country girl to the core, my first job was working for a local lady who wanted help to muck out her horses. It is perhaps the only job I have held which would be immediately recognisable to generations past. There are many in my tree who worked as stable hands, ostlers, horsemen or teamsters (driving a team of horses on a farm) who would have been as familiar with horse muck as I became! 

Later I worked in a veterinary surgery as a ‘Saturday girl’. My ancestors would have been acquainted with some form of veterinary medicine, even back as far as the years BC. However, the rapid advancement of the profession since the end of WWII means that injuries and diseases which would once have been fatal, even endemic, were treatable and preventable by the time of my employment. The face of veterinary medicine had changed a great deal within a century. For the history of veterinary science, try, a blog I discovered while researching for this piece. 

My last foray into what might be called a ‘rural’ career was my time at a Farm Park where I manned reception and the gift shop and on occasion was able to spend time with the beautiful Suffolk Punches (the horse, not Ipswich Town Football Club). ‘Tourism’ and ‘leisure’ would have been foreign concepts to a good proportion of earlier inhabitants of the Country. Back then, the horses were a common sight pulling ploughs across the East Anglian countryside for their keep; involved in food production, not entertainment and education.

By the time I moved into more new-fangled jobs things become far removed from my forebears. What on Earth would they have made of selling CDs and DVDs for a Top Dog? The idea of chain stores and branding didn’t really boom, regardless of product, until the expansion of the railways. And what about promoting sustainable travel through major developments and behaviour change in schools and businesses? What other choice did people originally have than their two feet, a boat or perhaps later, a train? This one is a prime example of how ‘progress’ can backfire! As for business continuity, wouldn’t that have been called ‘using your common sense, and trying not to injure yourself – or worse’!? 

The generations before me show a gradual shift, as with most families, from the traditional ‘job for life’ to the likes of me - moving from one job and organisation to another as opportunities arise, choices make themselves available (perhaps as qualifications and experience grow) and decisions beyond an individual’s control force their hand. 

Not that these influences are purely a new phenomenon. While ancestors did regularly pass a trade from father to son for generations – be it shoe making, weaving, farming (you’d never guess much of ancestry was East Anglian!) – there are plenty of examples of ancestors who changed their occupations. 

The following characters from my family tree illustrate a few of these changes: 

  • Sisters Alice, Florence, Jane and Kate all moved with their families to Saltley in Birmingham from Suffolk. Many of their family members worked in local munitions factories from around 1900 where a generation earlier their families had been farmers and agricultural labourers. Did they choose to migrate, or was there really little choice as demand for agricultural workers reduced? 
  • A father believing in education was able to pave the way for three of his sons to become doctors where previously the family had lived from their lands. These sons went on to ‘sponsor’ the children of their cousins who were similarly able to take up the opportunities of further education and even an associated Grand Tour while their own father’s fortune declined. 
  • A clergyman found a way to get his son a position as an Officer in the Bengal Army, perhaps as a way of elevating the family’s influence and the son’s standing in society. Sadly the individual in question died at just 19. 
  • A distant uncle became a ginger-beer maker as the weaving industry in Wymondham on which he had previously relied collapsed. Ten years later he had made the move to London to work in a factory as part of the tide of movement during the industrial revolution. 
  • The son of a labourer entered the police force and worked his way up to Sergeant, retiring to a farm of his own while his father had been at the beck and call of another man. 

The difference between myself and these people has much to do with the balance of choice and necessity. I have been lucky enough to make several informed choices about the direction of my career. My journey to this point perhaps began in Primary School when my teacher put ‘excellent work – a future village recorder?’ on a research project about the history of Peasenhall. However, the path my ancestors followed was often ‘decided’ before birth, or at least decisions might be taken by their parents before they were adults.

The level of choice we have, in education and in career, might be very different to that of our predecessors, but what we do have in common is that we are not immune to external influences. A decision made in the corridors of power, a change in the economy or a social upheaval can still have an impact on individuals, just as it did a century or a millennium ago. I have not been immune to this – the spending review forced my hand on one occasion, but unlike Ezekiel Coman, the weaver mentioned above, I was able to find another post relatively easily as skills for one customer-focussed job were transferable to another. In Ezekiel’s day, the tertiary sector was hardly a big employer.

A family history means more if it is placed in the context of the time in which it was played out. I am where I am - in my work and more generally - because the decisions I have made, the forces exerted on me and the choices available to me have brought me here. It was no different for my ancestors, and understanding these influences on their lives also helps me to understand them.

Stitches in time: tracking elusive cousins (part two)

Good evening! Welcome back to my blog about elusive cousins - investigating common themes which complicate the search for relatives. This time I’ll be looking at some examples of relocation and deaths of key family members as well as re-introducing you to a ‘rogue’ in my family tree. 

It’s a common belief that people didn’t move around in the old days. While that’s true for many, I’m constantly surprised by how many people did manage to travel around the globe, even before the peak of the British Empire. My Outerbridges seem to have arrived in Bermuda, possibly from Yorkshire, in 1617 - one of the first English families to settle there. My forebears only returned to the British Isles for good (at least on my direct line) between 1838 and 1841 when they landed once again in Swansea but remained closely tied to the sea through merchant shipping. 

Distance can inevitably complicate family links, particularly if miles were put between people before the advent of modern technologies. When I think how quickly I have lost touch with some university friends, it is easy to understand how the difficulties of communicating across counties, or even continents, could have widened the gap between cousins and other relatives. While to a certain extent the likes of twitter and facebook are bringing distant family members back together, the generations in between ourselves and the original travellers could have been left adrift from each other. 

A couple of examples from my own research now. The infamous (to me) William Coman, who will be featured later, had two sisters who left Wymondham in 1853 to travel to Salt Lake City. One of the sisters is documented in “Covered Wagon Women: 1853-1854”, recently digitised by Google ( as emigrating with her husband and two daughters and giving birth to a son “somewhere along the banks of the Platte” (the river famous for it’s location on the Mormon trail). "Covered Wagon Women Volume 6: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails" takes up the story and contains the following passage about Harriet Coman Dye:

“Monday 18th felt tolerably - Sister Dye confined last night with a son – these Mormon women - I think I should have been left in my grave in a similar case – but truly God fits the back to the burden – This we realize daily and I think in nothing more than in such cases – She went on with the Train and reported “all right” at night “Going on well” “Beautiful boy” &c &c” (sic)" 

Could the sisters have kept in regular touch with the family members they left in Norfolk? I think probably not, especially as many of those left in East Anglia could not read and write at the time. I can find no evidence of any visits across the ocean by relatives either. Would all of them have even supported such a move to the other side of the world? Perhaps the rest of the family had declined the offer of a new life in Utah. 

Several decades later, in 1913, 49 year old Caroline Raynham (nee Bloomfield) moved from Suffolk with her husband and children to Canada to farm. The family were much better off than the Comans before them and it seems they did keep in touch with brothers and sisters back at home to a certain extent. Caroline was a farmer’s daughter and her husband Arthur originally a grocer and later a farm bailiff. 

The couple’s ship manifest shows that they were stamped as “British Bonus Allowed”. Effectively, this was a marketing tool from the Canadian authorities -the government’s immigration branch paid commission to steamship booking agents to find suitable immigrants, often farmers like the Raynhams, to settle lands in Canada. Upon proof of settlement, the immigrants themselves received a separate monetary bonus. The British Bonus came into effect on 27 September 1890 and lasted over twenty years. 

Finally, a case of a family with European connections that moved around a lot but nevertheless left behind traces of their many travels, causing little difficulty for their descendants’ research. My beautifully named 4x Great Grandmother, Francisca Amelia Augusta du Bois, was born in Belgium to a British mother and Belgian father. Despite missing out on the odd census, some of her letters have made their way to The Bright Collection at the Shropshire Archives (, discussing amongst other things, the competence of Parisian doctors with leeches, Boudoir curtains (at length!) and the bitter cold in Brussels. 

Not only do letters exist, but additionally, a note on the burial register says that Augusta died in Madeira and was brought back to Lydbury North for burial (she lived with her husband, the Reverend, at Totterton Hall nearby). So, in this case, the most affluent of the three examples, relocation has had much less impact on the family, chiefly because of the ability to correspond eloquently by letter and the increased mobility brought by money and elevated class. 

Another barrier to your search for cousins is the death of a ‘key ancestor’. Perhaps this person took a secret with them. Perhaps they never meant to keep a secret but circumstances meant that they never shared information about part of the family because they were never asked. There is also the possibility that somebody died young and their family moved away or started a new life, intentionally or not. A new husband for example could mean moving in new circles and losing touch with old acquaintences. 

For example, until last week I was not aware that a relative of mine survived WWII (just) but died shortly after when he was hit by a car in a Suffolk village. It is easy to jump to conclusions when men died during key military events but until you have that all important proof, try to keep your options open. This incident was covered in the press and I now have a whole new trail to persue. A close ancestor of mine would have known this and been able to tell me all about it, but sadly he is no longer with us. 

If you have a missing ‘key ancestor’ like this, don’t despair. There are still ways of finding out more, it might just be a little more difficult. After all, even where people do give you leads, rumours need to be corroborated. People have a tendency to remember things differently as time goes on, and things like dates in particular are not often remembered correctly – more likely, the person will be able to tell you roughly when something happened in relation to something else e.g. ‘so and so was still alive at Auntie Hilda’s wedding but wasn’t at the baptism of Cousin Reginald’. 

Parish registers can be an absolute goldmine in helping fill in the blanks caused by a missing ancestor. This is the case not only when simply trying to ‘kill ancestors off’ but when looking to find additional details e.g. information about the circumstances of their death and details of the family they left behind. Gravestones and other monuments can also flesh out details. I’ve found stones giving clues to adopted children, unknown relationships and even occupations (perhaps I am at an advantage here as I have stone masons in the family – this occupation is often pointed out by the mason working on the memorial!). 

If you are lucky enough to have ancestors from Wells-next-the-Sea for example, the helpful clergy wrote down cause of death next to many of the entries. Not only can this reveal information about an individual ‘shot in the leg with a gun’ (perhaps try the local press if this gentleman belongs to you) but can also give you some context – perhaps a child died along with several others during an epidemic of a childhood disease. Other entries at Wells include the exact location of graves (in one case a former reverend is buried ‘in the brick vault’) and further entries include details of parents and/or children. Scans of the burial registers are available here: 

And finally, I turn to the ‘black sheep’ who seems to disappear off the face of the Earth, effectively sealing off access to his relatives living or dead. Way back when I started writing a blog I appealed for information about my 4x Great Grandfather William Coman. His wife Lucy called herself married in two successive census records but William was nowhere to be seen. I couldn’t kill him off, nor find him on any census records elsewhere. Quarter Session records mentioned a William Coman but alone could not be definitively proved as relating to the right William Coman. 

A few months later I had some amazing emails from a distant cousin in Australia with an incredible story. She thinks that William Coman was indeed a convict. He could have been sentenced to imprisonment at Norwich Castle for desertion of Lucy and his children, and also for drunken disorderly behaviour on more than one ocassion. She thinks that after a couple of stints incarcerated in the Castle, William chose to join the army to avoid further imprisonment and ended up in India. Why does she think this? Because a William Coman turns up in a Courts Martial for drunkenly trying to punch a bombardier which seems to match his previous character. Whilst this story seems to make sense, so far the information is consequential and I need further records to find out whether it’s correct. I’m currently planning a trip to London in order to consult Courts Martial records at the British Library and need to find reports of the Norwich Quarter Sessions to see what else I can find out. 

William Coman’s example includes a family separation, a relocation (whether William ended up in India or only moved a few miles and changed his name), and even the death of relatives that might have known the answers – his estranged wife died when my Great Grandmother was very young. While these themes can complicate family research, they nevertheless make the trail more interesting. If all our ancestors were good citizens, lived in the same parish for hundreds of years, got on with everybody in their family and passed up opportunities to travel, would our adventures in family history be so interesting? I think not. 

It’s our job to logically seek out records and piece together rumours, keepsakes and the contributions of distant relatives in order to fill in the missing stitches - making up for the one lost in time which cast branches of the family adrift in the first place. 

Stitches in time: tracking elusive cousins (part one)

During the last week I’ve been looking into a sometimes neglected branch of my family tree – the living elements! This has meant following my own advice and asking relatives what they know about their cousins, nieces and nephews. 

Specifically, I’ve been trying to collect information about my second cousins, most of whom I have met, if only briefly at baptisms, marriages and funerals. Coming from a fairly average 2.4 children family myself, it has been a few generations since more than three children was the norm. I’ve always known how many ‘ordinary’ cousins I have: two. Both of them are relatively local and of a similar age to myself – no problem there, then. 

My second cousins (the children of my parents’ cousins) are much more difficult to quantify because they span a much greater time and space continuum. They range in age from infants to at least middle-aged folk, and occupy at least three continents. Some have emigrated themselves, others were born in other countries as second or third generations of the family in that area. 

During my efforts to expand my recent tree sideways, I have come across recurring themes which will be familiar to many. Over the next two entries I take a look at some of the reasons why both current, and previous, generations might be difficult to trace and provide some teasers from my own family tree along with some hints as to where to overcome these challenges. There are overlaps between the themes as you will see. Tonight’s installment will be followed by another tomorrow. 

And so I begin by looking at family feuds… 

If your family doesn’t have any rifts, unfortunately, you are probably in the minority. Today, as in times past, there are a million reasons why family members can become estranged from one another. Perhaps you will find a reason for this – a significant family event, a business disagreement, arguments over inheritance, an ‘unsuitable’ marriage or an illegitimate birth. However, it is possible that the rift formed over something trivial that escalated until no one could remember the original disagreement. Both sides may have been too pigheaded to approach the other and renew family ties! In this case, you may never find out the true reason for the division. You may have family stories, letters, wills or newspaper articles which can help you piece together why a rift exists. Alternatively, you might just have imagined two brothers falling out over one too many quarts of beer! 

As a family, you might say we are known for our stubbornness. Looking at a family tree for one particular branch I would guess that this is not just a recent trait as there are reasons to suspect splits in the family over several generations! For example, I have as yet been unable to tell why the eldest son of a country gent ended up driving a cab in London while his two younger brothers went on to have lands of their own which passed on down the generations to their own sons. I have several ideas, any of which could be close to the mark or wildly incorrect at this point: 

  • I know this man was given land in his 20s – did he have one chance and blow it? Perhaps his father wouldn’t or couldn’t finance him a second time? (His father is remembered as ‘convivial’ and ‘generous’ – does this mean he used all the money up?!)
  • This gentleman moved to the city after his second marriage. Was there a local scandal? Did his family not approve? Was it too painful to stay where he had memories of his first wife?
  • Was he simply an adventurer, looking for excitement in the big smoke that couldn’t be found in East Bilney? (a small village near Dereham in central Norfolk)
  • Could he have been a gambler who fell on hard times, shunned by his father and brothers?
  • Perhaps having followed the promise of wealth in the city he could not face returning to his family when it did not come to fruition?
  • Was he really no worse off than his brothers, who, for all their lands, were actually in debt themselves but managed to avoid going to work for somebody else? 

Wills can be very telling in these situations, and I hope to one day update you on this case having sourced the necessary documentation – as a distant uncle I have not yet got all the wills I would like to see in this regard. There may also be family letters in the possession of relatives, or descendants of this gentleman who I may one day hear from. The internet, while providing an enormous amount of unreliable material, also has its uses!

A will for another ancestor however proved (no pun intended) useful because I learned that this man had not left anything to his son at all. Rather, he left his estate to his third wife and her children (a question mark remains as to whether these children were actually his biological offspring). This information, together with family tales and divorce papers, helped explain why there was so little knowledge of that side of the family, and why some people were simply not spoken of – in effect, the silence had erased them from history for a few decades. 

Today, while I can piece together a picture of the will writer’s character from what I have discovered on paper, perhaps he has been cast in a negative light due to the documentation I’ve managed to access. It is easy to jump to conclusions as the following tale will illustrate:


  • This individual had three wives and his first died from alcoholism. 
  • He then had a baby with his housekeeper, whom he later married. 
  • This wife divorced him in 1919 because he had allegedly started living with another woman in 1913 – the couple had originally separated because he was ‘cruel’. In his defence, he said that he had not intended to throw a plate at his second wife, it was just that his eyesight was bad. 
  • He eventually married the woman he was cohabiting with at the time of his divorce, leaving her and her children his estate.

Should this evidence, taken with his frequent name-changing, convince me that he was bad through and through, or am I adding two and two and making too many?  

A word of warning: emotionally, investigating old family feuds may prove easier than looking at current ones. Only you can decide whether it's worth investigating why current parts of the family don't communicate and there are lots of things that you may decide would be better left well alone - it may not be sensible to stir up old tensions and the risk of upsetting people may easily be greater than choosing to investigate interests elsewhere. 

Feuds and ensuing family rifts are but one of the complicating factors in tracing both living and deceased relatives – tomorrow I will continue this blog with a look at relocation, death of key family members and ‘black sheep’ in the family.

As ever, I am keen to hear your stories, particularly if there is a local or family connection. My research so far suggests I have at least 15 times more second cousins than I do firsts, and beyond that, the numbers really begin to add up – I am bound to have some distant cousins reading this at some point, and indeed some have already made contact having found previous blog entries. 

Until tomorrow…!


Can family history ever get too personal?

An interesting question to ponder.

Would your ancestors have appreciated you finding out about their illegitimate children, their brushes with the law, their personal tragedy?

Virtually all family historians, whatever their level of interest, research because they enjoy finding out more about their ancestors, more about ‘where they come from’. But what happens when you uncover something other than ag labs haymaking in the sun or landed gentry sipping tea in their parlours? What happens when something doesn’t sit well with your modern morality or when you uncover an event which is a true shock to the system?

The truth is, despite the rose-tinted haze through which we can allow ourselves to see history, peoples’ lives were tough. Most were a lot tougher than they are today. Huge swathes of the country lived with overcrowding, disease, crime, addiction and malnutrition every day of their lives, working manual jobs where today’s health and safety regulations were unthinkable. The people we find on census records, in parish records, newspaper articles, obituaries and certificates were real - they didn’t lead perfectly happy lives in a happily-ever-after musical fantasy just so that we could find out about their idyllic lives centuries later.

It would be a rare family tree which didn’t involve illegitimacy somewhere along the line. While it wasn’t always hidden, many readers will be familiar with records where grandchildren are recorded as children and mothers recorded as siblings. It is not particularly unusual for a birth certificate to show  a blank for father and then a marriage certificate to state a grandfather’s name in place of a father’s. The question is regularly asked, did the individual even know that their father was really their grandfather and their sister their mother? If they did, would they have wanted you (and the rest of the world) to know?

While on many occasions these instances are beyond living memory, it is possible to find long lost relatives in the indexes and possible to make discoveries that could be upsetting to people still with us. There are plenty of individuals who would still find it distressing to discover that their parent or grandparent was born out of wedlock, and many of them would never have known if it weren’t for the modern popularity of genealogy and the growing availability of records.

When it comes to crime, I regularly read stories of researchers finding murderers and crooks in their trees. It is odd how the passage of years seems to change opinions about the desirability of a criminal in the family. After all, people didn’t commit real crimes ‘back then’ - they just got transported for stealing a hanky or a piece of rotten fruit to feed their family. Didn’t they?

I think the more disturbing aspect of past crimes is not finding the perpetrator but the victim. What if Old Bailey records ( allow you to read harrowing records of an ancestor of yours that was abused, injured or otherwise ill treated? A friend of mine experienced this very thing, finding a distant aunt as the victim of an atrocious attack - hardly a happy-go-lucky cockney.

Of course there are far more light-hearted family tales (at least with a few decades between crime and reminiscence). I’ve heard a tale relating to my own family about a man who was caught doing some dodgy dealing. He was caught and sentenced to six months and his family had to rush around buying as many local copies of the paper as possible to keep the news from his parents! As much as this may amuse his descendants now, at one time it was worth hushing up.

We are so lucky now that most families do not experience the loss of children or young mothers on a regular basis. Researching our history shows us that only a few decades ago, it was a very different story. I have an ancestor who by the age of 42 had had 17 children of whom ten were still living. Paper records and numbers on the screen give us a sterile record of what were intensely intimate events for that family, living in a yard that was demolished in slum clearance not long afterwards where people lived at very close quarters and lived hand to mouth.

Of course there are numerous possibilities of discovery for family historians, both good and bad. Times have changed and ideas of right and wrong have evolved. Your ancestor might have been a slave owner, a wife beater or a bigamist. Society has changed and what is now acceptable has changed with it – should we judge the past with modern eyes? That’s a much bigger question than be answered with this blog.

I am not trying to say that all researchers see the good in everything and try to skirt the bad, romanticising the past in a tea-time-costume-drama-happy-ever-after fashion. In fact it has been suggested that family history is good for your health precisely because it helps you understand how your ancestors triumphed over adversity - or at least survived – so that you could be here today.

What I would say is that researchers should have a respect for the past and for the records they use. They should understand that a few pieces of paper do not give a full picture of a person – although they might give you clues to their life and family. It is also essential that researchers keep in mind the effects research might have on those still living; not necessarily avoiding living individual research, but being aware of consequences, both good and bad, of any discoveries. Like anything, there are shades of grey here but there are certainly limits to what I would call responsible. For example, I would certainly question the reasoning for putting an up-to-the-minute family tree online – not least because of the data protection implications but because peoples’ private lives are just that, private.

This is the reason that in my own humble opinion, what a client doesn’t want to know is just as important as what they do want to know. Personally, beyond immediate family remembered by close relatives, I focus on the Victorian and earlier individuals on my tree. Whether secrets help or hinder is not the question here, but whether delving into somebody’s life story is any of our business!

If I think about my own life and the future, do I worry about my Great Great Great Grandchildren discovering my secrets? No, not at the moment, but perhaps I don’t have any secrets (yet!) which I would be uncomfortable with them knowing. Maybe my feelings will change as I go through life but my current thought is that if I research my ancestors, then the least I can expect is that my descendants will return the favour. A person is a product of good times and bad, great ideas and mistakes. It is the mixture of the positive and negative that makes genealogy so interesting and so emotive.

Whether family history ever gets too personal really is a difficult question. We can learn an enormous amount from the past – as individuals, as families and as a society – but in the end it will come down to the researcher as to what they feel comfortable finding out about right now. I love family and local history and I think that learning in such a personal way, through your own ancestors, is an incredibly powerful experience. I would recommend it to anyone as a worthwhile past time (no pun intended) because it provides insights into why you are the way you are, and why your family act the way they do. It provides a challenge, an enjoyable hobby and an excuse to travel, read and meet new people. It can also be heartbreaking, shocking and uncomfortable.

Family history will always be personal because the people we research were real, living and breathing members of our families. It does none of us any harm to keep that in mind.