Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Wordless Wednesday - Born to be Wild?

My Great-Aunt Gwen (1897-1976) astride her pride and joy.  Gwen carried on riding until of quite advanced years - she would drive around Bristol with her older sister, Alice, in a sidecar.  After an accident she was forced to give up biking and drove a Mini instead.  Neither Gwen or Alice married, but lived behind Alice's grocer's shop until they both died within months of each other in 1976. 

This photograph was sent to me recently after I appealed for information about my family in a local newspaper.  The man who serviced Gwen's car emailed me to say that when the two sisters died he was asked by their younger sister to clear out the garage.  He took her all the documents and photographs he found but she told him to burn them (Aaaaaghhh!!!!).  He couldn't bear to do it and kept them for many years.  However, this was now the only one he could find - he kept it because he like the motorbike!
Monday, 28 March 2011

Military Monday - Air Show Tragedy, Kent, 1948

On 18 September 1948 the RAF experienced an extremely black day; three de Havilland Mosquito aircraft were lost in accidents killing the crews and a number of civillians.  All were taking part in airshows.  VA887 dived into the ground during a slow roll at Coningsby, Lincolnshire.  TA507 stalled during its aerobatic display and crashed into a hospital at Lichfield; as well as the crew 10 people on the ground died.  TE808 hit the ground at RAF Manston in Kent killing 12 spectators and the crew.

The airshow at RAF Manston was an annual event to commemorate the Battle of Britain.  Crowds of people thronged the camp in the late summer sunshine to look at the aircraft before the show and marvel at the aerobatic displays.  On that Saturday the lead Mosquito aircraft was piloted by 29 year old Flt Lt Geoffrey Hanson.  His navigator was 46 year old Flt Lt James Martin.  Flt Lt Hanson flew his aircraft in formation with the other two Mossies before peeling off to perform some solo manoeuvres.  A young eyewitness remembered that the aircraft was so low that he could see the pilot's face and that the navigator had smiled and waved to the crowd.  His father had remarked that he was "too bloody low".  Indeed he was.  The exact cause of the accident is uncertain but it seems likely that the wing tip of the aircraft clipped the raised cover of a reservoir causing the pilot to lose control.  He may have attempted to steer his aircraft away from the crowded camp causing it to crash instead onto the access road to the show.  Sadly the road too was full of vehicles and people making their way to the show; twelve of them died. Some people had lucky escapes, being pulled from their burning cars by local farm workers and other spectators.  Flt Lt Hanson's wife witnessed the accident but was unharmed.

The pilot and navigator are buried together at Margate Cemetery.  I don't know what became of Flt Lt Hanson's widow or whether he had children.  Flt Lt Martin, who had served throughout WWII, left a widow and five children ranging from 15 to 6 years old.  I am lucky to be the daughter-in-law of his youngest child.
Sunday, 27 March 2011

Family History has made me Special!

Quick insight into life here at The Treehouse - a conversation with my 11 year old daughter earlier this afternoon:

"Mum, I think you're special"

"Thanks sweetheart!"

"No, Mum, I think you're special - like the kids you teach - special.  You're really obsessed with family history - you're doing it again!"

OK, pause the conversation there - I work with young people with Special Needs - including kids on the autistic spectrum who often develop a very special and single interest (coaches run by a particular company, frogs, Frank Sinatra, radioactivity spring to mind - apparently genealogy springs to my daughter's mind). 

"This isn't family history, I am on Ebay" I counter.

"Looking at World War 1 cap badges" she snaps back "because of your great-grandad"

"Great-uncles, actually"

"You're getting weird"

I bite back a reply involving her rock collection and hoard of geology books and, point taken, switch off the computer and make a swift exit to the beach, daughter and dog in tow. 

Great Scot!

If you haven't already pencilled it into your diary, Tuesday 5th April is an important day for those of us who have a Scottish family interest (I actually don't, but I insist on dabbling on my husband's behalf).  Yes, the 1911 Census is being released at 11.00 BST on the scotlandspeople website ( 

Scotlandspeople is a very good site in my opinion.  It is a pay-per-view site, with 30 credits costing £7.00 from 1st April.  These credits will be valid for a year.  To search the indexes costs 1 credit for 25 images, to view a census image costs 5 credits. 

I like the site because you can view and download entries in the BMD registers direct from the site - no need to send off an order and wait impatiently for a paper copy to arrive.  Scottish certificates also provide more information - for instance, not just the day of a death, but the time too.  They also give details of parents on death certificates - mother's maiden name for instance, which you don't get on English/Welsh certs.  The only drawback is that some of the quality can be lost in the scanning - it took me hours and hours to decipher the rather faded and elaborate copperplate on my husband's great grandfather's marriage entry. 

Incidentally, you can see some transcribed information from Scottish census returns on the Ancestry site, but not the original images.  Useful if you have an Ancestry subscription - you can search the indexes for your ancestor (and not use your credits on Scotlandspeople) and then view the correct image at the Scottish site.
Friday, 25 March 2011

Cousin, where have you been all my life?

In a previous post I suggested a few ways to hook up with cousins whom your family had carelessly misplaced and who were already looking to get back into the fold.  Today I am setting out how I have found those lost cousins who are living their lives in blissful ignorance of you and your desire to find them - definitely the more tricky of my two "lost" cousin categories.

Before we start, a couple of provisos:

Firstly, a word on etiquette.  We all have a right to privacy and your much longed for family reunion isn't going to get off to a good start if your cousin is ticked off that you (and the rest of the world) found them after you placed an advert naming them in their local paper.  So, always be discreet in your enquiries and scrupulously polite in your approaches to prospective cousins.  (More on this later).

Secondly, damp down your expectations.  It is tempting to imagine a joyful reunion with beautiful, grateful people who are over the moon to meet you.  I always remember an old friend who met his cousins for the first time - he was shown into their sitting room and given a seat at the back of the room behind them and was ignored whilst they ate their dinner and watched a soap.  After a couple of hours he made his apologies and left, with a greater understanding of why his branch of the family hadn't kept in touch with theirs!

Thirdly, protect yourself.  You are approaching strangers - they may or may not turn out to be your cousins - so take the usual steps to protect yourself and your identity.  Although you may wish to establish your credentials by giving out lots of family information, hold some back and ensure that your cousin is able to confirm their own credentials. Build up a relationship slowly and at a distance before rushing to meet up. 

So, with these caveats in mind, prepare to find your cousins.  If you have already started your family history research, you have all the skills you need - you are just going to use them in reverse.

1.  Decide on who to find

Look at your tree and family records - who do you have most information on?  Let's say it is your grandfather's brother Albert Smith.  You know Albert's date of birth (let's say 1880) and you know from his medal card that he survived WW1.  Your great-grandfather's will dated 1925 mentions Albert, so he was alive then. 

You now need to search the marriage index to find who Albert married.  He wasn't married during the war, his records show that, so search between 1918 and 1938.  You come up with two possibilities.  You can then search those ladies' names in the 1901/1911 Census - perhaps you will find that one of them lived near Albert's home - she is your more likely candidate.  To be sure, order the certificate.

Let's assume that you find that Albert Smith married Gladys Hunter in 1920 in Plymouth.

Next step - search birth records for children born in Plymouth with the surname Smith, mother's maiden surname Hunter between 1920 and 1935.  Assume you get three hits:  Albert 1921, Gwen 1923 and Alice 1925.  These are likely (but not guaranteed) to be Albert and Gladys' children.

One method of double checking is to search for the deaths of Albert and Gladys and order the death certificate of the one who died last.  The informant on a certificate is often one of their children (if you order the certificate of the first of the couple to die, the informant may well be the surviving spouse and you are no further forward).

Repeat the process for finding marriages for Albert Jnr, Gwen and Alice.  Then repeat the process for finding their children.

You now have a bank of possible names for your first cousins once removed (Albert Jnr, Gwen and Alice) and your second cousins (their children).

2.  Find their address(es)

Again work forward from a last definite address.  Let's say that you found that Albert Smith Jnr as informant for his mother's death in 1965.  His address will be given too.  Use the BT phone archives (find them at Ancestry) to find out how long he lived at that address. Even if Albert is now dead it will be useful to have his last known address if you need to go to step 3 below.

For your second cousins, try using the electoral register (again, on Ancestry follow the Living Relatives tab or use or similar) or current phone books. 

I have recently found two cousins using this process - and I didn't pay for the privilege either!  Viewing full electoral registers costs money, but if you know the full name of both your cousin and his/her spouse it is fairly easy to cross reference people with the same postcode on the limited free view. 

If you do find a possible address, I think that a polite letter is the way forward.  Introduce yourself and give the purpose of your letter - apologise in advance if you have got the wrong person.  Give enough information to establish a family connection, but don't go overboard.  Suggest a couple of ways of contacting you - by post, email, phone and if you have a family website give them the URL.  Make it plain that you completely understand if they do not wish to contact you and apologise again for the unorthodox introduction you are making.  If you can scan an old family photo that is good too - they may recognise a family member which will lend credence to your letter.

Also, don't dismiss a simple Google search - I finally found my cousins in Australia using this method.  Admittedly it took months, but eventually by following newspaper reports, local government records and Googling her work address I was able to send an email and found my very surprised cousin at the other end!

3.  Appeal for information

Many local papers will place a story for you - I have done it twice and both times I have had some information back - not from my family, but in both cases about my family.  The story I placed DIDN'T mention anyone living. It mentioned my ongoing research, my great-grandparents, the names of their children (all long deceased) and the area they lived in.  Of course I gave contact details.  This allows any family to made the decision to contact you (or not).

You can also place a message on a community message board - may be in the last known area.  Again, mention why you would like to contact your family - frame your message so that you don't name anyone whom might be living (eg I am searching for the family of Albert Smith - I believe he may have had a son who lived in the High Street area.  My interest in finding him is that I am researching my family history and my grandfather was Albert's brother.)

I wish you luck - I have been blessed to find a marvellous group of cousins - hope you do too.
Thursday, 24 March 2011

Thrifty Thursday - Census for Free at Ancestry

Ancestry are celebrating Census Day 2011 by offering everyone the chance to search their indexes for free on Saturday, 27th March.  This is a one day only offer, and you can only look at the indexes for free.  This will give you basic information though - ages, birthplaces and family members.  If you want to look at the original images you will need to pay - either pay-per-view or subscription.

Is it worth it?  Yes, but as with all family history research, prepare yourself first (so get going NOW).  You will need:
  1. Blank family tree forms (you can download from the internet)
  2. The name(s) of relative(s) who were alive in 1901 - if you know their ages and where they lived, even better.
  3. Start with the 1901 Census - if your relative was living at home, note down the names of parents.  If not, you may find their parents in the previous decade's Census.
  4. Work back through the decades, adding to your tree as you go. 
Enjoy your Saturday!
Wednesday, 23 March 2011

5 Ways to Bump into a Cousin

Have you ever wondered if you have any "lost" cousins out there?  People with whom you could perhaps connect, share family memories, extend your family tree?  Do they exist?  Could you find them?  Should you find them?

My answers to the last three questions are - probably, yes and maybe!  I don't often blow my own trumpet but I have had considerable success in tracing cousins I knew nothing about, both in the UK and abroad - not bad at all when you consider the surnames I am tracing are Brown and Jones!  It hasn't been a quick process (think many months, not a few days) but for me it has been an almost wholly positive experience.  However, it does lead you into ethical issues and may simply lead to a sense of disappointment if not downright disillusionment. 

I tend to think that "lost" cousins fall into two groups - the ones who already want to be found and the ones who haven't yet realised that anyone has lost them!  In this post I am considering the first group - they are probably family history enthusiasts themselves, they may well be already looking for YOU and once found you will probably have something in common other than a great-granny.  To find these cousins you just know where to look to increase your chances of bumping into them.

Where to look - here are my top five ideas:

1.  Genes Reunited

I have reassessed my views on Genes Reunited, largely due to my success in using the site to find several cousins - so the site is living up to its name!

The idea is that you set up your family tree and then the site matches you with people who have a similar entry in their tree.  This is where problem number one occurs - the site matches your entry (eg Joe Bloggs b 1900 Bolton) with all other Joe Bloggs b 1900 Anywhere.  You then have to sift through to find your Joe Bloggs.  Then you find a match - hurrah!  You send a message, eagerly anticipating a swift reply.  Problem number two - no answer arrives (ever).  It would seem that Genes Reunited have a problem with retaining their members, but don't have a problem with retaining their trees, so whilst although the name is one their database, no one is looking at the account. 

So that makes the site look pretty useless - but it'sreally not.  I have found a second cousin via the site and two fifth cousins who were able to extend one branch of my family back a further two generations.  Just be warned, not every message you send will be answered - but when they are, you can hit gold.

Discover your family story at Genes

2.  Lost Cousins

Another site dedicated to - well, the names says it all really!  This site works a little differently from Genes Reunited (and it's free).  You fill in data on your family, but rather than a family tree format it is a census data format.  The site then match it to other members' information.  I have had one match on this site, but it is worth joining simply for the excellent newsletter.

3.  Ancestry

It is pricey, but I love it!  As well as the records that the site has on offer, you can also search members family trees.  Some members make theirs public in which case you can almost instantly see if you have a match, others keep theirs private in which case you need to send a message for more information.  I have made some excellent contacts through Ancestry (for some reason it nearly always seems to be fourth cousins) and we have shared research and documents and added to our respective trees. 

One caveat - some tree keepers on Ancestry are not too picky about their research - don't be one of them.  Always scrutinise other people's research.  I have one person who has copied a whole branch of my tree simply on the basis that my great-grandfather William John James has the same name as one of her ancestors - she has conveniently ignored the fact that my old boy was born in Wales, whilst hers was apparently born in Bethnal Green. 

4.  Rootschat and other forums

In 2004 a family history enthusiast in Canada posted a query about her husband's family on Rootschat, mentioning his great-great-grandfather's name in the post.  She must have been disappointed as the days, weeks and months ticked by with no reply.  In 2008 in a fit of boredom I Googled my great-great-grandfather's name and at the top of the search list came that Rootschat post.  I was almost shaking as I posted a reply, terrified that after so long a time she might have changed her email address - luckily she hadn't, and I had found my first lost cousin (although it was actually my second cousin's wife).  Without Liz I would never have seen a photograph of my gg grandparents, wouldn't have read some family documents that her family kept or have found an enthusiastic ally in my search for more cousins. 

So, join those forums and get posting (and don't change your email address).

5.  Facebook

Very popular, very now, often very shallow.  But also useful for the family historian.  You can use it in two ways.  Firstly, search for groups with your surname.  Obviously this is easier if you have an unusual surname, but you may have some luck.  Secondly, set up your own group - I have done this.  As mentioned, I am a common-as-muck Brown, so I have distinguished myself from the other Browns by adding on the location of my family - the Browns of Stapleton, Bristol.

Facebook has worked for me.  A client asked me if I could find any of her cousins.  It is not something I am comfortable with doing for other people as it brings into question people's privacy.  However, Facebook is a public forum and I was able to direct her to a family group page where she could post and find cousins for herself. 

So, five ideas for you to try.  Be warned though - you may find cousins and it may not work out as you hoped.  Often people just want to swap information, nothing more - disappointing if you want to make a more social connection.  You may also find yourself opening a can of worms.  Remember the second cousin I found via Genes Reunited?  We found that we are of an age, brought up close to each other, even playing in the same street - yet our grandmothers, who were sisters, did not speak, so we did not know of each other's existence.  Her life has been one of tragedy - orphaned at a young age - and I have been left questioning how my late grandmother could have ignored a child like that and it has somewhat marred my memory of her. 

In my next post, I will be writing about cousins who are unaware that they are "lost" and considering how you can find and contact them.

Until then, happy hunting!
Monday, 21 March 2011

Weekend Reading

A major part of my family history research has been the WW1 military records of both my grandfathers and their brothers.  I try to read as many "light" works on the Great War as I can - too much military terminology turns me off and I get lost in the Orders of Battle and can't follow the various tactics and phases of offensives.  I don't mean to disparage anybody's books as "light" - I suppose I should say accessible or easy to read.  Anyway, this weekend's book has proved to be just that. 

Shots from the Front, The British Soldier 1914-1918 is a collection of photographs from all fronts in WW1, selected and written about by Richard Holmes.  Holmes is not only a leading military historian, but also a broadcaster (War Walks, Wellington) and here he uses his experience as a presenter to provide an informative and insightful narrative to a wide range of images, from the commonplace to the gruesome.  I found this to be an evocative and moving, as well as educational, window into the lives of the men and women who served at the Front. 

Key piece of information for me (I am keen to learn how to identify soldiers' units from their uniforms):  I can now identify a "gor blimey" cap, know what "collar dogs" are, about long service stripes, overseas stripes and wound stripes.  (It's a start!)
Key piece of trivia:  If a kite balloon wasn't inflated properly and things went badly wrong, the hydrogen rushed to one end and the balloon "went pear-shaped" - and here I was thinking it was a reference to what happened if you ate too much cake!
Saturday, 19 March 2011

The Lost Diggers

Earlier today I found Helen Vail's excellent blog 100 NZ WW1 Memorials 1914-2014 http://www.100nzww1memorials1914-2014.blogspot/.  Helen's labour of love involves documenting 100 WW1 memorials in New Zealand in time for the centenary of the outbreak of WW1.  Check out her fantastic site, full of humbling stories.  It makes me feel a little pathetic in my attempts to piece together the WW1 records of just three of my great-uncles. 

Helen's site reminded me that a couple of weeks ago I had an email from one of my cousins in Australia suggesting that I might like to look at a Facebook page set up by an Oz TV company.  The had access to a set of photographs, recently rediscovered in France in a farmhouse.  These wonderful photographs were mainly taken towards the end of WW1 and feature Anzacs as well as soldiers of other nationalities.  My cousin thought I might like to peruse the site to see if I could find any of our great uncles.  So far I have managed to rule out anyone wearing a turban, but haven't got much further than that!

The photographs are fantastic in themselves, but as time goes on people are adding their comments and I am so impressed by people who can tell from uniforms, cap badges, stripes on sleeves just which regiment men came from.  My knowledge of the First World War is patchy to say the least, although it is a work in progress.  I am slowly getting to grips with the Royal Army Medical Corps (my grandfather's regiment) and the role of the St John Ambulance (one great-uncle's unit).  When I feel strong enough I shall tackle the Royal Garrison Artillery. 

If you haven't already stopped by the Lost Diggers, have a look at!/lostdiggers.

Great Grandfather No 1 (First in a series of four!)

Richard Henry Brown is my paternal grandfather's father. I feel I owe him a great deal.  It was the large family portrait that he had taken of himself, his wife and their 11 children that inspired me to start my family history.  Over the years I have come to like him very much (which is daft - he could have been a complete tyrant) and I see myself in him.  (I have this photo courtesy of one of the cousins I "found" during my family history research.)

Henry (he didn't use Richard, which was his grandfather's name) was born on 16 April 1853 in Stapleton, Bristol.  His parents, William and Martha ran a dairy, but Henry didn't follow his father into the business - he had his own ideas, and for the first twenty years of his adult life he followed a series of occupations.  I don't know if he couldn't succeed in his ventures or whether (like me) he simply got bored rather easily.  Whatever the reason, Henry became a sailor, serving in the Merchant Navy, a police fireman, a tramdriver, a corn factor and eventually a pork butcher.  He stuck to his final career for the last twenty years of his life and two of his sons, and one of his brothers, followed him into this line of business.  He married Ellen Warren, a barmaid 12 years his junior who I surmise he met while he was a police fireman - her uncle's pub was a few doors away from the main police station in Bristol. 

I have decided that Henry was a good egg.  Why?  Just snippets of information gathered over the past few years really.  Firstly, he just looks so proud of his family - the big family photo I have shows a man who loved his kids and wanted to capture his family around him for all time (I now think that he had the picture taken just before his eldest son emigrated to Australia, shortly followed by another to Canada).  And, it wasn't just his children he was close to - when he opened his first shop it was just around the corner from his parents' dairy. 

Secondly, my cousins in Australia have a watch given to Henry by his siblings.  It is engraved on the back with gratitude for the way in which he dealt with their parents' will - so clearly he didn't grab all the money for himself which apparently he could have done.  Another cousin has a letter written to Henry and Ellen by one of their boys during WW1 - he is describing his journey to try to reach one of his brother's deathbed.  He writes with love and affection, no stiff Edwardian formality to distant parents. 

Finally, Henry died on 29 June 1920, not two years after the end of WW1, from which three of his sons did not return.  I think he just couldn't stand the loss. 

Well, that's my spin on Henry Brown - I won't ever meet him, but I feel I know him.
Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Family History Tales (Part 1)

What is it about family history that is so attractive, particularly at the moment?  Are our living families so disappointing that we are trying to dig up someone a little more appealing?  Are we devoid of role models in the present, so seek them in our distant past?  Well, I don't know about you, but nothing so deep is going on with me - I just want to match up some names to faces. Thirteen faces to be precise, all immortalised in a photograph taken around 1904, brought home 35 years ago. I knew it was my grandfather's family - him, his seven brothers, three sisters and their parents, but at that time I knew only four of the names - my grandfather's and his sisters'.  I decided I would find out all their names.  Then like most teenagers I found something more interesting to do and forgot about it for the next ten years.

Luckily I eventually remembered and over the next twenty five years I have built up their family tree, found all their names, tracked down their war graves, found who they married and traced their children and grandchildren all over the world.  I have moved onto the other branches of my family tree and beyond that into tracing other people's family trees.  I have found a passion - genealogy.

But I still haven't succeeded in my original quest.  I wanted to match names to faces, and although I know all the names of my great-uncles, I can't quite match up four - three died in WW1, the fourth survived, but I haven't traced his descendants yet.  Will I ever find them - I'll let you know.

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