1874 And All That

“Of course, it wasn’t compulsory to register births until 1874…”

Oh dear. There it goes again. Every time you think it’s dead, back it comes, rearing its ugly head once more. And somehow, despite the compelling evidence that emphatically debunks it, it manages to cling to life, cropping up occasionally in magazine articles and websites and, most distressingly, in family history advice columns. It’s the myth that refuses to die.

Audrey Collins wrote an excellent blog on the subject almost exactly eight years ago, based largely on some research that we did back in the old Family Records Centre days. The research had been inspired by a feeling we both held, that the rate of non-registration of births had traditionally been hugely exaggerated. We frequently heard/read claims suggesting that up to 30% of births occurring between 1837 and 1874 had not been registered; the idea was that it was hardly surprising if you couldn’t find a birth in this period. After all, it wasn’t compulsory… that dreadful phrase was churned out time-and-time again.

The figures bandied about just didn’t ring true; they didn’t tally with the experiences that both Audrey and I had from a combined 50 years or so of using the General Register Office’s (GRO) birth records, so we decided to investigate. We looked at the original legislation from 1836 and 1837; we read the Registrar General’s Annual Reports and we examined the data. And what we learned convinced us that the rate of non-registration was far lower than had been suggested. It was clear that it had taken a few years to get there but that, by the mid-to-late 1840s, registration of births and deaths was as close to being comprehensive as could reasonably be expected. As Audrey wrote in her blog post:

William Farr, who was Deputy Registrar General for many years and can be described as the first government statistician, estimated that the overall rate of non-registration was about 5% for the whole period 1837-1874, and that compliance improved over time.

What was it then that had given birth to the myth of non-registration?

Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths was introduced in England and Wales on 1 July 1837. The 1836 Births and Deaths Registration Act included the following clauses:

XVIII. And be it enacted, That … every Registrar shall be authorized and is hereby required to inform himself carefully of every Birth and every Death which shall happen within his District … and to learn and register soon after the Event as conveniently may be done … the Particulars required to be registered … touching every such Birth or every such Death, as the Case may be, which shall not have been already registered…

XIX And be it enacted, That the Father or Mother of any Child born, or the Occupier of every House or Tenement in England in which any Birth or Death shall happen after the said First Day of March, may, within Forty-two Days next after the Day of such Birth or within Five Days after the Day of such Death respectively, give Notice of such Birth or Death to the Registrar of the District …

This clearly shows that, under the terms of the original legislation, the ultimate responsibility for ensuring that births (and deaths) were registered lay at the feet of the Registrars and not the parents. And while the Registrar was ‘required’ to register the births, as far as the parents were concerned, they ‘may … give Notice of such Birth or Death…’ (my italics). The wording here is certainly ambiguous but, as we will see, the intention of the Registrar General was quite clear.

The other point that is frequently made is that there is no mention of any penalty for failing to register a birth.

The 1874 Registration Act (which came into force in 1875) tightened up some loopholes and made it clear that it was the parents who were principally responsible for registering births:

1. In the case of every child born alive after the commencement of this Act, it shall be the duty of the father and mother of the child, and in default of the father and mother, of the occupier of the house in which to his knowledge the child is born, and of each person present at the birth, and of the person having charge of the child, to give to the registrar, within forty-two days next after such birth, information of the particulars required to be registered concerning such birth …

So it’s true that there was nothing in the original legislation which specifically required the parents to register their children’s births and that there was no suggestion of a fine or penalty if they didn’t do so. It’s perhaps not so hard to see how the myth took shape.

However, the reality is quite different. It’s very easy to find newspaper reports from the late 1830s and early 1840s covering the trials of parents who refused to register births. The GRO were clearly determined that births (and deaths) were going to be fully and properly registered and they were prepared to prosecute people for refusing to do so. And one trial in particular blows the non-registration myth firmly and comprehensively out of the water.

Allow me to introduce you to Mary Shaw, a ‘poor woman’ of Thurlaston who was indicted at the Leicestershire Quarter Sessions on 3 January 1839 for ‘contemptuously disobeying a recent Act of Parliament, in refusing to answer questions put to her by the Registrar of Births, relevant to the birth of her child.’ The case was reported in some detail in the Stamford Mercury of 11 January 1839.[1] The registrar, William Webb Warner, was called as a witness and ‘deposed that on the 1st of September last he waited upon Mrs Shaw for the purpose of registering the birth of her child…but on asking the necessary questions, she refused to answer them. When he asked the name of the child, she replied that she should have the child baptised at the church as usual.’

The following passage taken from a letter from the Registrar General addressed to Mrs Shaw is highly illuminating:

Some persons may perhaps imagine, that because no penalty is specially imposed by the aforesaid statute for disobedience to such injunction, therefore compliance is optional, and refusal to comply not punishable by law. In case such should be your present belief, I am hereby directed to inform you, that it is ruled ‘that if a statute enjoins an act to be done without pointing out any mode of punishment, an indictment will lie for disobeying the injunction of the Legislature.’

Take a minute or two to absorb this. Read it again and then ask yourself whether or not it was compulsory to register births…

And if that’s not enough to convince you, consider this. The number of births registered in 1875 actually fell (slightly) from the previous year. If the 1874 Act had made any difference to the practice of registering births, it would surely have resulted in a significant rise.

birth registrations in england and wales 1870-1880

Birth registrations in England and Wales, 1870-1880

So, the next time someone tells you that it’s not surprising that you can’t find a birth before 1874 because it wasn’t compulsory to register births, please, tell them they’re wrong…

Further (essential!) reading: Birth, Marriage And Death Records: A Guide for Family Historians by David Annal & Audrey Collins

[1] Stamford Mercury, 11 January 1839, page 4, column g

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My Family History in 52 Tweets

A project for 2019 – 52 illustrated tweets that sum up my family and my family’s history. Documents, objects, photos, people, places – it all counts. One tweet every Tuesday. Watch this space…

8/52 It’s often said that family history is about names, dates and places but it’s also about ‘things’. The artefacts we inherit from our ancestors can help us to tell their stories. Here’s a cart plate once owned by my Orcadian 2xgt grandfather, James Annal.


James Annal’s Cart Plate, now on my dad’s conservatory wall

7/52 Twenty seven years ago this week, I became a dad. Happy Birthday (tomorrow) to my older daughter Catherine Maggie Annal, now a brilliant, hard-working Primary School teacher. Family History is as much about the present & the future as it is about the past.

IMG_6442 (Edited)

Me and my daughter, Catherine Maggie Annal, February 1992

6/52 Our lives are full of seemingly inconsequential, life-changing events. In 1979 I saw a job in the local paper, got the job and met my wife. Here are my parents in 1949, before they met. They’d both joined the Tynecastle branch of the Hibs Supporters Club.

Hibs Supporters Club Tynecastle Branch 1949

Hibernian FC Supporters Club, Tynecastle Branch, ca.1949

5/52 My grandma (pictured here with her mother) was illegitimate. Her father isn’t named on her birth certificate. If she hadn’t told me what she knew about him, I would never have known about this whole branch of the family. There’s a lesson there somewhere…

margaret howland & margaret howland

My grandma, Margaret Howland (1906-1990) with her mother, also Margaret Howland (1872-1958), ca.1914

4/52 In the summer of 1978, Uncle Tom came to stay. I asked my mum how we were related (I knew he wasn’t her brother or my dad’s) and we drew up a family tree – which I still have. Turns out he was my granny’s cousin. The rest, as they say, is (Family) History.

family tree

My first family tree, drawn up with assistance from my mum (Kathleen Flynn), 1978

3/52 What got you hooked on FH? For me it was an interest in royal genealogies, the trees at the back of The Lord of the Rings & our pedigree cat! But mostly it was the Gordon Honeycombe TV series & Don Steel’s book which taught me that me I could do it myself.


Discovering Your Family History by Don Steel (BBC Publications, 1980)

2/52 I was born 58 years ago last Sunday at Edinburgh’s Elsie Inglis Memorial Maternity Hospital. This is Elsie Inglis (1864-1917), doctor, suffragist and hospital founder. Dr. Inglis helped to make childbirth safer for mothers and their children. Thank you!

2 elsie inglis

Portrait of Dr. Elsie Inglis from the Welcome Collection

1/52 Everyone has one; that box or envelope full of certificates and other useful documents. You might get lucky and inherit them from your granny. And of course they have inbuilt provenance. They belonged to your family so you know that they’re the right ones.

1 Documents.JPG

Family documents. Photograph by David Annal, 2019.

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It’s a small world

Two years ago, while I was on holiday in Germany, I had a call from a client who wanted to know if I could help him to track down his elusive grandfather. When I got back to the UK, I set up a meeting with the client (let’s call him Alan) and I soon started to get to grips with the problem. It turned out to be a fascinating case and one which serves as a reminder of just how much material is out there that we can’t access online but one which also neatly illustrates the ways in which the internet has opened up research possibilities that simply weren’t available to us a few short years ago.

It took about 18 months of painstaking research before the answer was found but today, back in Germany almost exactly two years after setting out on the journey, I found myself standing next to Alan’s grandfather’s gravestone; remarkably, he had died in Wiesbaden, just 80 miles from where I had been holidaying when Alan first contacted me back in 2016.


Entrance to the British Military Cemetery in Wiesbaden. Picture by the author, 19 July 2018

Alan’s grandfather was born in Batley, Yorkshire on Christmas Day 1880. He grew up in Yorkshire, following in his father’s footsteps, working as a gardener, but in 1905, he married a woman from Oxfordshire in the Suffolk parish of Exning, near Newmarket. Five years later, Alan’s grandparents (we’ll call them David and Elizabeth) set off for a new life in Canada; and this is where the story starts to get interesting.

In August 1913 a boy called Harold was born in Hamilton, Ontario; David was the father but Elizabeth wasn’t the mother. Harold’s mother was a young woman called Emily. It seems as if Elizabeth had become aware of the situation as, the following month, she and David returned to the UK. Harold sadly died in February 1915.

Then, in September 1914, on the outbreak of war, David enlisted as a Private in the 2nd County of London Yeomanry. He later transferred to the Military Mounted Police and after the war ended he was posted to the British Army of the Rhine, finally being discharged in June 1922. David was then living in Cologne and he clearly intended to stay there as the previous year he had started divorce proceedings against Elizabeth, claiming that she had committed adultery and that Alan’s father (Reginald, born in February 1918) was the result of this illicit relationship.

It’s hard to say whether David was actually Reginald’s father or not; he’s certainly named as the father on the birth certificate and Reginald is listed as David’s son on the Army service papers but there’s some doubt as to whether David (who was posted to France in April 1916) could possibly have been in the UK at the right time to have fathered a child who was born in February 1918.

The divorce was finalised in December 1923 and the following year David married a German woman, Hilda.

With the assistance of some very helpful people at a variety of German archives (not to mention my wife’s excellent grasp of German), I was eventually able to discover that Hilda died in Heidelberg in 1978 but the details of David’s death eluded me for some time. Indeed, it was a chance search on the Ancestry website which eventually turned up the relevant record, part of a database that was only uploaded to Ancestry in January this year.

It seems that David had remained with the British Army of the Rhine as a civilian employee, working in the Physical Education department and he’d moved from Cologne to Wiesbaden when the whole operation shifted south in 1926. David died in Wiesbaden in January 1929 and was buried there in the British Military Cemetery, part of the Südfriedhof.


The British Military Cemetery in Wiesbaden. Photograph by the author, 19 July 2018

David’s grave is one of the 100 or so memorials to members of (and those connected to) the British Army of the Rhine to survive in the British section of the Südfriedhof in Wiesbaden today. There are surely other remarkable stories to be told, hidden amongst the stones.

There’s much more to the story that I’ve left out here (for example, the death of David’s first wife Elizabeth in the Richmond Union Workhouse – remarkably, she died just six months before David) and I’ve changed the names to respect client confidentiality.

I should mention the assistance of Carl Becker, a researcher based in Wiesbaden who located the gravestone and who was there to meet me at the Südfriedhof today. Carl played an important part in bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion.

Research of this nature was virtually impossible just a few years ago; but now, thanks to the internet I was able to quickly communicate with staff in German archives, access German records online and make contact with a knowledgeable German researcher. But I also had cause to access a whole host of records (army service papers, workhouse records, divorce proceedings etc.) which aren’t available online. The World Wide Web is clearly a gift to family historians but it’s important to remember that, despite what the adverts might suggest, you can’t do it all online and that you sometimes have to, as my colleague Audrey Collins likes to put it, ‘go to a place and look at a thing’.

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The River Colne: a local history walk


The River Colne near Radlett Road Playing Fields, showing one of the many small streams which feed the river in this area. Photograph © David Annal, 2018

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently investigating the history of my local patch – namely Watford and Bushey in south-west Hertfordshire. I’ve been looking at lots of old photographs and maps of the area and I’ve become particularly fascinated by the old mill stream or ‘cut’ which took the water from the River Colne (which runs to the east of Watford) down to the breweries and the old corn mill in the lower High Street. I don’t know when it was first ‘built’ but the cut was a magnificent piece of engineering and although most of it has long since disappeared underneath the modern landscape of Tesco and Century Business Park, there are still a couple of stretches remaining so I went looking for them on Sunday morning.

The cut ran from Colne Bridge, where the embankment and the five massive arches carry the main Euston-to-Glasgow railway over the river and where, nowadays, the two carriageways of Stephenson Way take huge volumes of traffic in and out of Watford. Diverting from the original course of the river at that point, and running south west for a couple of hundred metres, the cut then bent to run almost directly due south and continued in that direction for almost exactly one kilometre.


Ordnance Survey 25-inch map. Hertfordshire Sheet XLIV.2 1912 (detail). Showing the River Colne and the ‘cut’ running from Colne Bridge, southwards

After flowing through the site of Sedgwick’s/Benskin’s Brewery, it entered Watford Mill (through a seven-step sluice gate which controlled the water’s flow) and then under the High Street before emerging on the other side and eventually rejoining the Colne in what is now Oxhey Park.


Ordnance Survey 25-inch map. Hertfordshire Sheet XLIV.6 1896 (detail). Showing the mill stream or cut running due south from Watford Brewery to Watford Mill, crossing underneath the High Street and continuing southwards until it rejoins the River Colne

The corn mill and the brewery took up much of the site now occupied by Tesco. The mill itself was situated roughly were the goods entrance to Tesco is now; it was destroyed by a fire in 1924 but not demolished until the late 1930s. In the photograph (below) the course of the cut can clearly be seen, running across the bottom of the picture, as can the light-coloured wall of the former corn mill and the sluice to its right.

1956 Lower High Street

Lower High Street, Watford Fields and Benskin’s. From: Watford Past; a pictorial history in colour, by J B Nunn

The northernmost section of the cut is still there today and now forms the main ‘body’ of the River Colne. It runs from the railway embankment to a point just south of Water Lane, near Tesco, where it was diverted in 1987 to rejoin the old course of the river. I must have walked along the path hundreds of times over the years but it never occurred to me to question why the ‘river’ is so straight here. Now I know…


The cut viewed from Water Lane looking northwards, with Stephenson Way crossing over it. Photograph © David Annal, 2018

As you approach Tesco, the former path of the river is still very easy to see today; the path that runs at the back of the superstore down to the High Street, almost exactly follows the route of the old cut.


The footpath at the back of Tesco follows the course of the cut. This view is looking northwards towards Water Lane, with Tesco on the right. Photograph © David Annal, 2018


The cut flowing between the brewery buildings to the east of Watford High Street. This photo was taken from a similar point as the modern view above but facing the opposite direction. The buildings on the left are on the site now occupied by Tesco. From: Watford Past; a pictorial history in colour, by J B Nunn


Lower High Street, Watford. From: Google maps, satellite view. Accessed, 15 April 2018.

And if you stand with your back to the path as it reaches the High Street, you’ll see Glyn Hopkin’s over to your left; the metal fence that forms the boundary at the rear of Glyn Hopkin’s site is the continuation of the course of the cut. This is actually best seen from the satellite view on Google maps, where the ‘scar’ of the cut can be seen quite clearly in the modern landscape.



Once it hits the one-way system at the far side of Glyn Hopkin’s, we lose all sight of the cut in the landscape, although it roughly follows the course of Dalton Way, through one of the archways and out the other side. At this point, right next to the new road junction with Tom Sawyer Way, we can once more see the cut itself. A small stump of this southern end of the mill stream (no more than 50 metres) has somehow survived and although it’s now no more than a stagnant pool, it’s nice to know that something’s still there.


The northern end of the southern section of the cut, with Dalton Way behind it. Photograph © David Annal, 2018

The point at which the cut ‘flows’ into the River Colne in Oxhey Park is now so overgrown that it’s very easy to miss.


The southern stump of the cut joins the River Colne in Oxhey Park but it’s easy to miss. Photograph © David Annal, 2018

Now I need to discover when the cut was ‘built’ and see if I can find out a bit more about the breweries and the mill.

David Annal, 15 April 2018

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What would I have done?

I’ve very much enjoyed reading all the recent blogs, tweets and news items marking the 100th anniversary of the passing of the Representation of the People Act (1918); that ground-breaking piece of legislation which gave the vote to women aged 30 and over and extended the male franchise to include all adult males. Ironically, the Act enfranchised the remaining 42% of men who had not previously been eligible to vote while doing the same for just 40% of women. The 1918 Act was clearly important, but it was really just a step in the right direction and perhaps it’s the 90th anniversary of the Equal Franchise Act (1928) that we should be celebrating right now; it was under the terms of this later Act that women finally achieved full electoral equality in the UK.

I like to think of myself as fairly enlightened; someone who fully supports what are generally thought of as feminist causes, and as a historian, I often wonder how I might have responded to the political issues of previous eras. Would I have been at St Peter’s Field, Manchester on 16 August 1819 to demand parliamentary reform (and get caught up in the horrors of the Peterloo Massacre)? I’m sure I would have sided with the Tolpuddle Martyrs but would I have been one of the thousands of people who gathered on Kennington Common in the spring of 1848 to march on Whitehall and present the great Chartist petition to Parliament? I’d like to think so but most of all, I’d really like to think that I would have been a passionate supporter of the Suffragist cause.

So much has been written about the Suffragettes; about Emily Wilding Davidson, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, Sophia Duleep Singh, Charlotte Despard, Annie Kenney and, of course, about Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Sylvia and Christabel. And there were thousands more whose names are not so well known; ordinary women who took a stand against what we now see as a clear and obvious injustice but which at the time was viewed by many as the natural order of things.

The 1911 census was, to many in the Suffragist movement, the perfect vehicle through which to focus dissent. Under the slogan ‘No Vote, No Census’ a campaign of civil disobedience was launched, encouraging women to refuse to fill up their census forms and to endorse them with the phrase, No Votes for Women; no information from Women. Women who were not householders were asked to refuse the requested information or to absent themselves from home for the night.[1]

Hundreds of examples of ‘spoilt’ schedules have been found in the 1911 census, recording a mixed degree of success when it came to evasion of the census. My favourite failed attempt at census resistance relates to a woman called Eleonora Hawkesworth. In 1892, Eleonora, then aged just 17 had married Edward Arthur Maund, a man 22 years her senior. Maund was a Director of the British South Africa Company and a former African explorer who, along with men like Cecil Rhodes, was instrumental in the British conquest of Rhodesia and appears to have had what we might call a ‘colonial’ mindset.

His views come across loud and clear on his 1911 census schedule.[2] After Maund had completed the form, listing himself, his wife, three children and two servants, Eleonora had evidently got hold of the form, scored out her own name and written ‘Wife Away’ at the foot of the form. Unfortunately, before the form was collected by the census enumerator, her husband discovered what she had done and took action himself, restoring Eleonora’s name and other details, and writing (in red ink):

My wife unfortunately being a Suffragette put her pen through her name, but it must stand as correct it being an equivocation to say that she is away she being always resident here & has only attempted by a silly subterfuge to defeat the object of the Census. To which as “Head” of the family I object. E A Maund


1911 census of the Maund family of Kensington showing Eleonora Maund’s failed attempt to evade the census. TNA: RG 14/227 schedule 4

But surely not all men were cut from the same cloth as Edward Arthur Maund. Surely, there must have been thousands of right-thinking men who fully supported the Suffragist cause; what did they think, and more importantly, what did they do about it?

Well, when it comes to support for the Suffragette’s census campaign, one man stands out from the crowd. His name is not well-known but perhaps it deserves to be. Let me introduce you to Mr Victor Prout…

Victor William Prout was born in Marylebone in 1862, the son of Victor Albert Prout and his wife, Amy Sarah (née Barber). His father was a pioneering portrait photographer and as a young man Victor followed a similar vocation, becoming an engraver. As early as 1881, he is listed in the census as an ‘Engraver on Wood’.[3]

He was also clearly interested in feminist causes; I am grateful to Elizabeth Crawford, the author of The Women’s Suffrage Movement: a reference guide (Routledge, 1999 and 2001), for sending me a copy of one of Victor Prout’s engravings. Published in the popular illustrated newspaper The Sphere on 8 February 1902, it is entitled ‘Women Who Work At Our Coal Mines; Cleaning Coal at the Pit Brow’ and illustrates the grim conditions in which the women were working.

Victor Prout engraving The Sphere 8 February 1902

Women Who Work At Our Coal Mines. Engraving by Victor Prout, published in The Sphere, 8 February 1902

Victor Prout appears to have been doing quite well for himself, with numerous commissions as a book illustrator coming in during the 1890s and early 1900s. His illustrations also appeared regularly in The Sphere from June 1901 onwards and seem to have become increasingly political in content. In November 1905, he covered the Women’s march on Downing Street (‘The Women’s Deputation To The Prime Minister’) in a highly sympathetic engraving.

Victor Prout engraving The Sphere 11 November 1905

The Women’s Deputation to the Prime Minister. Engraving by Victor Prout, published in The Sphere, 11 November 1905

So, when the call went out to women to resist the census, it’s perhaps not too surprising that Victor was listening and was prepared to do his bit. When Percy Cooper, the enumerator for the Palmers Green district of north London in 1911 went to collect the census schedules for his district, the form returned by the occupants of 6 Stonard Road wasn’t quite what he was expecting. Instead of completing the schedule, Victor Prout had written the following statement across the form[4]:

I wish to protest against the terrible treatment women have recently been subjected to as the result of the Liberal Government’s method of repressing the agitation in favour of Women’s Enfranchisement and I refuse to fill this census form because women are claiming that until they are given the rights of Citizenship they should not be counted and I leave out the men as an act of sympathy with that claim. All the withheld information will be freely given as soon as a Women’s Enfranchisement Bill becomes law. Victor Prout

1911-Victor & Isabella Prout census RG14-7386 s.13a original

Spoilt 1911 census schedule, containing Victor Prout’s protest. TNA: RG 14/7386 schedule 13a

The following day, Cooper sat down and wrote a letter to J H Judd, the local registrar.

As a result of a tramp yesterday from 8 am to 9.30 pm I got in all my schedules, except six which I was unable to obtain owing to people being out. I however secured the remaining six today.

 I have to report that Mr Victor Prout of 6 Stonard Road, Palmers Green refused to properly fill up the form or give any information (notwithstanding I read the Riot Census Act (sec: 2) to him)…

Letter Cooper to Judd

Letter from Percy Cooper to J H Judd. TNA: RG 14/7386

The registrar must then have taken it upon himself to write to Mr Prout. This letter hasn’t survived, but Prout’s reply has and it makes fascinating reading:

Dear Mr Judd

Thank you for your courteous and kindly note asking me if it is not possible to reconsider my decision in reference to my census form.

Let me assure you that on my part I do not wish to cause distress either to yourself or anyone else. My protest is of course not directed to you but the Government and my reason is stated on the form.

Please do not feel anxious that any action which it may be your duty to take on account of my having refused to fill up the Schedule will cause any unpleasantness. All my past relations with yourself have been of so pleasant and friendly a nature that that would be quite impossible.

Believe me when I say that any action you may feel it your duty to take I shall welcome most gladly and let me add in conclusion that no one regrets more than I do the stern need which compelled me to take the course I did.

With kindest regards, I remain
Yours sincerely
Victor Prout

Letter Prout to Judd

Letter from Victor Prout to J H Judd. TNA: RG 14/7386

The final part of the story comes in the form of a memorandum from the Census Office addressed to the Registrar Mr Judd, advising him to ‘fill up a schedule with the best information available concerning Mr Prout and the other occupants on Census night.’

Memorandum Census Office to Judd

Memorandum from Archer Bellingham (Census Office Secretary) to J H Judd. TNA: RG 14/7386

And that’s exactly what he did, as the final version of the schedule reveals.

1911-Victor & Isabella Prout census RG14-7386 s.13a

‘Completed’ 1911 census schedule, containing details of the Prout family. TNA: RG 14/7386 schedule 13a

It’s clear from this that the Government were keen not to give additional publicity to the Suffragette’s campaign by prosecuting offenders. Instead, they took a more pragmatic view and got the best data they could.

From the summer of 1912 we start to see Victor’s name appearing in notices promoting Women’s Suffrage Meetings and in October 1912 he is specifically named as the Honorary Secretary of the Men’s Federation for Women’s Suffrage.

Men's Federation for Women's Suffrage The Suffragette 25 October 1912 page 27 column c

Notice regarding the Men’s Federation for Women’s Suffrage, published in The Suffragette on 25 October 1912. Page 27 column c

It’s clear from the very existence of this organisation and other similar ones such as the Men’s League For Women’s Suffrage that Victor Prout was not alone but as far as I’m aware (and I would love to hear otherwise) Victor was the only man to have personally adopted this particular course of civil disobedience advocated by the Suffragettes.

I’d like to think that I would have done the same – who, knows, I may even have joined Victor in the Men’s Federation for Women’s Suffrage…

[1] Vanishing for the Vote, Jill Liddington (Manchester University Press, 2014)
[2] The National Archives (TNA): RG 14/227 schedule 4
[3] TNA: RG 11/333 f.97 p.4
[4] TNA: RG 14/7386 schedule 13a

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A Wasted Day at TNA

I’ve just got back from a wasted day at the National Archives in Kew. I set off this morning, full of hope that, with three very different cases to investigate in three very different sets of records, and a carefully planned strategy for each one, my chances of success were good. Instead, here I am, back home in the middle of the afternoon, and my hands are empty. Not one document image to pass on to my clients. Not one discovery that might result in the breaking down of any brick walls.

I suppose we’ve all had days like this; whatever our line of research, we’re almost inevitably going to have days where nothing quite works out. Despite the meticulous planning of the past few days – the list of sources diligently researched, the appropriate documents identified, the advanced orders placed – today was one of those days. The records failed to bear fruit. Nothing. Not even the sniff of a lead.

So, as I said, a wasted day.

But was it really? Well, of course it wasn’t. Take a step back and you soon realise that days like this are all part of the process of becoming a better researcher and that, in any form of historical investigation, negative outcomes can be just as important as positive ones.

I now know that the person who appears in the records of the Kings German Legion (KGL) with a similar name to that of the person I was looking for is not the person I’m researching. I know that the Privy Council’s Plantation Books don’t cover the area that my client and I were hoping they would and I reminded myself of the unfortunate truth that the records of the Assize courts rarely add anything to the details found in contemporary nineteenth century newspaper reports.

But that’s only a part of it. I may not have found what I was hoping to find but, in the process, I gained a better understanding of the records that I was using; I know more about how to access them, what they look like and what sort of information they might provide – all useful material to store away for future research projects.

And while they may not have told me anything about the people I was researching, that doesn’t mean that they told me nothing. In one of the Plantation Books,[1] I found a map of Port Royal, Jamaica, dating from 1801 and showing the Palisadoes forming the southern ‘wall’ of Kingston Harbour – now the site of Norman Manley International Airport.

Map of Port Royal, Jamaica

Map of Port Royal, Jamaica. TNA reference PC 5/15 f.194

In another book in the same series,[2] I found a lengthy legal document relating to the will of the wonderfully-named Bezaleel Hodge of the Island of Tortola (the largest of the British Virgin Islands) and the complicated inheritance of two of his granddaughters, Sarah Purcell and Ruth George (née Hodge).

I found a (presumably Jewish) man named Moses Levy serving in the Kings German Legion during the Napoleonic Wars.[3] Subsequent research reveals that Moses had been born in Hanover around 1782, and that he served with the KGL for over ten years between 1805 and 1816, attaining the rank of Corporal in 1810.[4]

In a register of In-Pensioners of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea,[5] I stumbled upon a list of ‘Nurses’ – female nurses – covering the years 1795 to 1811. Mary Dixon, for example, appears under the date 27 July 1803 (presumably the date that she was admitted to the hospital). A date of death is given in the register (19 November 1815) which ties in with an entry in the Chelsea Hospital burial register, recording the burial of Mary Dixon, Nurse of the Infirmary, aged 65, on 24 November 1815.[6]

I found references to a number of men of the KGL being ‘blown up’ during the Siege of Ciudad Rodrigo in January 1812 and another reference to one of their former comrades in arms (Charles Knierim, a native of Hanover) being shot for desertion ‘by sentence of General Court Martial’ on 1 March.[7] The General Orders – Spain and Portugal (1812) indicate that no fewer than 18 men were tried and sentenced to death at the same General Court Martial.

Seventeen years later, the six men sentenced to death at the Suffolk 1829 Summer Assizes[8] were more fortunate than their Napoleonic predecessors. William Viall, Thomas Wright, Benjamin Whymark, Henry Perry, Thomas Sparks and William Pool all had their death sentences commuted to the lesser sentence of transportation to Australia for life. Nevertheless, it’s difficult not to empathise with the convicts and to think about the uncertain future that they faced. It’s also very tempting to look them up in the transportation records to see how they fared on the other side of the world…

So, my day was anything but wasted. Far from it. It was full of stories; stories about real people who lived and died many years ago. The records may ostensibly relate to the British Isles but I learned about people who lived their lives in the Caribbean; about people who came from Germany, served in a British (German!) regiment and died in the Iberian Peninsula, and about people from Suffolk who ended their lives in Australia. The documents that we use in our research breathe life back into these people and the stories that they have to tell are endlessly fascinating. And when you look at it that way, it’s fair to say that not a minute spent looking through them can ever really be considered wasted.

© Dave Annal, Lifelines Research, 30 January 2018

[1] The National Archives (TNA): PC 5/15 f.194r
[2] TNA: PC 5/14 ff.272r-277r
[3] TNA: WO 25/3203 f.324
[4] TNA: WO 122/5
[5] TNA: WO 23/134
[6] London Metropolitan Archives (LMA): DL/T/7/3 p.21
[7] TNA: WO 25/2279
[8] TNA: ASSI 33/11 & ASSI 94/2052

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