A census release with a difference

In a previous life, when I worked for The National Archives, I was actively involved in planning and delivering the launch of the 1901 and 1911 censuses for England & Wales. Now, I’m delighted to announce my involvement in the release of a brand new online census resource. OK, it’s probably not going to have as big an impact as the forthcoming release of the 1921 census for England and Wales (due on 2 January 2022) but this one’s 100 years older, so it’s clearly 100 years better…

This is the story of how, against the odds, a copy of the 1821 census returns for the Orkney parish of South Ronaldsay & Burray survived and, after lying in my distant cousin’s kitchen drawer for over 50 years, was eventually deposited in the Orkney Library & Archive. The whole of the census, listing the names, ages, addresses and, in many cases, the occupations of the 2227 inhabitants of South Ronaldsay & Burray can now be searched and viewed (free of charge) on the Findmypast website.

At the time of the 1821 census, Peter Nicholson McLaren, was the Parochial Schoolmaster of South Ronaldsay, Orkney’s southernmost island parish. As the enumerator, it was his responsibility to make an accurate count of the number of people living in South Ronaldsay, Burray, Swona and the Pentland Skerries on the night of 28 May 1821 – just as hundreds of enumerators the length and breadth of Great Britain were doing for their own districts.

This was the third decennial census to have been taken in the United Kingdom, following those in 1801 and 1811. Each successive census asked more detailed questions, as the government sought to gather information about the UK’s growing population but there was no requirement to list the names of the inhabitants in this census and there wouldn’t be for another twenty years.

However, for one reason or another, a number of conscientious enumerators decided to make full lists of the names, ages and occupations of the people living in their districts and we are fortunate not only that South Ronaldsay’s schoolmaster was one of these, but also that the fruits of his labours have survived to the present day.

I first saw South Ronaldsay’s 1821 census document in the early 1980s when I visited Orkney and met my cousin Sandy (Alexander Taylor Annal). I say “cousin” but it is a distant relationship, our common ancestor William Annal having been born around 1750. I only got a fleeting glance at the document on that visit but Sandy was kind enough to supply me with a photocopy of the whole census which I then spent hours poring over, transcribing and indexing after returning to England.

Although I consulted the census frequently over the next twenty years and found much useful information in it about my South Ronaldsay ancestors, I didn’t really give a great deal of thought to the origins of the document itself, or to the story of how it had survived for over a hundred and sixty years and now came to be in Sandy’s possession.

There was, however, one problem to overcome. My photocopy of the census had a page missing and since my dad (Eric Annal) was due to visit Orkney in July 2004 and would be paying a visit to Sandy, I asked if he could somehow get me a copy of the missing page. One evening, a few days after my dad’s arrival in Kirkwall, I got a phone call to say that his mission had been accomplished – not only had he been able to get a good photocopy of the page but Sandy had actually allowed him to borrow the document. And this was where the story of the 1821 census of South Ronaldsay took an unexpected twist.

As far as I am aware, my dad was the first person for years, probably decades, to have been given unrestricted access to the document. And it was this freedom to peruse the volume at leisure that enabled him to consider it in a critical light. I had known from my own photocopy that the original was written on what appeared to be an accountant’s ledger. Indeed, the first three pages of my copy consisted of accounts dating from the 1860’s and 1870’s and Sandy had annotated it with the words, “This cover page is a shop keeper’s credit notes (using spare pages in our census book).”

As my dad looked closer at the document he began to develop a theory that the census had in fact been written onto spare pages in the shop keeper’s book and not the other way round. He also noticed that the handwriting on the accounts pages and the census pages appeared to be identical! He then came across a note on the ‘History of the Manuscript’ written by Sandy at the end of the census, which reads as follows:

This copy of the 1821 census was in the Post Office at Quoys shop kept by Mr Thomson from 1821 until 1923[1] when William Thomson his Grandson[2] died app age 57 leaving his widow and one daughter. Alex T Annal of Stensigarth retrieved this book from a bonfire – it is the only record of its kind in existence. Signed by his son – Alexander Taylor Annal – 1997 at the age of 90 years.

This was clearly something that required further research; who was Mr Thomson and how did the census come to be in the possession of a shop keeper?

A few days later my dad was in St Margaret’s Hope talking to a local historian, George Esson, when George showed him a copy of ‘Church Life in South Ronaldshay and Burray’ by Rev. J B Craven[3]. As he looked at the dedication in the book, the following words jumped out at him;


So, was this our Mr Thomson? If so, he was obviously a bit more than just a shopkeeper.

Research into various South Ronaldsay sources provided some basic information about this James Thomson. He was born at Quoys in the South Parish of South Ronaldsay, the son of Donald Thomson, a farmer, and his wife Ann (née Gray) who were married in South Ronaldsay on 22 February 1809. James was baptised on 10 October 1819 and is found in the census returns for 1821 aged 1.

Later censuses provided the following details about James Thomson:

1841 Quoys 20* Shopkeeper * ages were rounded down to the nearest 5
1851 Quoys 31 Merchant
1861 Quoys No.3 41 Grocer
1871 West Quoys 51 Merchant
1881 Quoys 61 Merchant
1891 Quoys 71 General Merchant

This is clear evidence that James Thomson was working as a merchant/shop keeper at the time the accounts in the ‘census book’ were written. Sandy’s story places the document in the possession of this family. The logical conclusion must therefore be that the account book belonged to James. The evidence of the handwriting suggests that James was also the ‘author’ of the census returns themselves – not that he compiled the original data (he was, after all, some five months short of his second birthday at the time!) but rather that at some time, probably in the 1880’s, he copied the details of the census from a document which probably no longer exists into his old account book.

Before we move on to look at why James Thomson might have done such a thing there are a few more important pieces of evidence to consider. We know that the original enumeration was carried out by the schoolmaster, Peter Nicholson McLaren. As we have already seen, the government did not require official returns of names, ages and occupations so there were no pre-printed forms available for McLaren to enter all the details on. He evidently decided that he wanted to record these details and as a schoolmaster he would presumably have had access to a large selection of notebooks – so why would he choose to use a shop keeper’s account book? Most important of all why would he start writing some distance into the book – the first census page is numbered 23! It’s clear to me that what we’re dealing with is not the 1821 original but a transcription in a shop keeper’s account book which was no longer required for its original purpose and that the handwriting is that of Thomson and not McLaren.

Further research revealed that James Thomson died on 21 October 1900 leaving a substantial will[4]. However, the most crucial discovery was that of a letter written by Thomson to John Gray of Roeberry on 20 May 1870[5]. I am enormously grateful for the assistance of Sarah Jane Grieve and Alison Fraser of the Orkney Library and Archive who were able to uncover this vital document as well as offering my dad support and advice. The letter, which is signed by James Thomson of Quoys confirmed two things; first of all that James Thomson had an interest in the people and history of South Ronaldsay and secondly that the handwriting in the 1821 census was undoubtedly Thomson’s. A comparison of the two documents leaves little room for doubt on this matter.

Letter from James Thomson of Quoys to John Gray of Roeberry, 20 May 1870. Orkney Archives ref: D33/1/22/29
Detail from the 1821 census of South Ronaldsay, showing the Gray family of Roeberry

The final proof that we were on to something significant was the discovery of a lengthy obituary in The Orcadian, covering nearly two whole columns of the broadsheet newspaper[6]. The obituary concentrates on James’s spiritual life and in particular, his involvement with the Free Church in South Ronaldsay which was clearly a very significant part of his life. The ‘obituary’ is in fact a transcript of the sermon preached by the Reverend Alex Goodfellow, minister of the United Free Church in South Ronaldsay, at James Thomson’s funeral service. In it he stated that;

He has been with us from the beginning – since the Free Church was started in 1870. And but for him there might have been no Free Church in this island. He undoubtedly was the main mover…

In ‘The Soul of an Orkney Parish’ there is a short section about the Free Church which includes the following paragraph:

In the official records of the Free Church, reference is made to Mr. James Thomson of Quoys, who assisted the Church early in his life, and continued to collect for its Sustentation Fund until he was well into his eightieth year[7].

Interesting as this may be, it didn’t give us any further clues about Thomson’s possible involvement with the census. However, the ‘obituary’ also provides a fascinating insight into areas of his life which are of more concern to us here;

Let me tell you something more about the life and history of this remarkable and memorable man of God, for undoubtedly he was “above many” if not above all in this island. He has not left his life behind him. His figure and personality were outstanding, for in bodily presence he was neither weak nor contemptible, while his mind was active and vigorous, and his memory was prodigious. His general knowledge was very great, for from his youth up, he was a devourer of books and papers, and all kinds of information. Many, after meeting with him, have declared that he was a “walking encyclopaedia.” All who wished to know about the antiquities of these islands, about the ministers of past and present generations, about the old family histories, and curious stories of bye-gone days, would apply to Mr Thomson. A self-taught man, and one who did not seek after great things, for he was contented to stand behind the counter and to be familiarly known as “the merchant.” He has not written a book, but he has spoken volumes. His shop for long was like a public reading room, and then he was in his element, pouring forth all the news of the political, religious and social world.

Now this was more like it! Surely ‘the merchant’ is a very likely character to have been responsible for transcribing the 1821 census and surely this is as close to absolute proof as we will ever get that Sandy Annal was the proud owner of a document written by James Thomson of Quoys in the 1880’s and not the 1821 original.

I am personally convinced that this is the case. It does nothing to devalue the document in any way. If anything it makes it more interesting, giving it a human touch which is normally lacking in documents like this. Nor is there any reason to believe that it is anything other than an accurate transcript of the original – and remember that this has probably long since disappeared. Without the efforts of James Thomson, his son William Alexander Thomson and two generations of the Annal family, the information would have been lost forever and those of us with an interest in the history of South Ronaldsay would have been robbed of one the most important documents the island has ever produced.

Following Sandy Annal’s death in January 2007, his copy of the 1821 Census of South Ronaldsay was deposited in the Orkney Library & Archiveon permanent loan, in Memory of Sandy Annal and on condition that the manuscript remains in Orkney.”

The 1821 census returns for South Ronaldsay, along with an enormous amount of useful genealogical data relating to the parish and its inhabitants can also be found online on SouthRonaldsay.net

© David Annal, 26 July 2019


[1] William Thomson died on 19 May 1922 (Death Certificate of William Alexander Thomson, GRO-Scotland Ref. 1922, South Ronaldsay 29/21)
[2] William was the son of James Thomson not his grandson (Birth Certificate of William Alexander Thomson, GRO-Scotland, Ref. 1863, South Ronaldsay 29/30)
[3] Church Life in South Ronaldshay and Burray by Rev J B Craven, D.D. (Kirkwall, 1911)
[4] Testament of James Thomson of Quoys, Kirkwall 29 December 1900. Orkney Library and Archive ref. SC11/38/16
[5] Letter from James Thomson of Quoys to John Gray of Roeberry (20 May 1870). Orkney Library and Archive ref. D33/1/22/29
[6] The Orcadian, Saturday November 3 1900, p.5 columns 4 & 5
[7] The Soul of an Orkney Parish by Stuart D B Picken (Kirkwall, 1972), p.102

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Oma and the Rosenstrasse Protests

My younger daughter, Isabel, completed an MA in Archaeology last year. She’s currently waiting to start her PhD in October and has been spending some time helping me with my research. She’s always shown an interest in family history and over the past few months she’s become particularly captivated by the story of her maternal grandmother’s experiences as a ‘Mischling’ in wartime Berlin. She’s really thrown herself into it and now plans to write a book about it all.

In this guest blog, Isabel outlines the remarkable story of her Oma’s life.

If you’re interested in finding out more about Isabel’s work, please visit her new website.

My Oma (my mum’s mum) kept diaries for most of her life and we recently found a whole box of them in our attic. Her diaries are the type I’ve always wanted to be able to keep up – notes of what she did each day, with a couple of lines about more personal things. Unfortunately, the oldest surviving diary dates from 1943 when she was 16 years old; earlier ones may have been destroyed when a bomb hit their home in Berlin on 23 August 1943. But in later life, and with her husband’s encouragement, she also wrote a memoir, covering in detail her childhood, and her experiences in Nazi Germany. Together, the diaries and the memoir represent a fascinating account of her life, which is in parts a deeply depressing story to read, but I think important for people to hear.

D1Yix-TXcAA34eA.jpg large

My Oma’s diaries

Susanne Schwarz was born in Bad Dürkheim (Rheinland-Pfalz) in 1926 to an ‘Aryan’ mother and a Jewish father. The family moved to Berlin in 1935, after her father (like all Jewish people working for the state) lost his teaching job. They hoped that the relative anonymity of a large city might protect them from the increasingly antisemitic sentiments of their fellow Germans. I often wonder whether this was the right call – although it would have been much more difficult to keep their Jewish identity quiet in a small community, it was Berlin, as the capital of the Reich, that Goebbels was most obsessed with completely ridding of Jews. It seems wrong to describe Susanne’s family’s survival of the war as ‘lucky’, because there isn’t much in her childhood that can be considered lucky. But, the more I learn about her precarious status, the more amazed I am that she did survive.

Oma and Hermann_e

Susanne and her brother, Bad Dürkheim, c.1932

In January 1933, Susanne and her younger brother had been baptised. This was not uncommon for children of Jewish-Aryan intermarriages. Indeed, her mother was a Protestant, and the Church played a large part in my Oma’s youth, but there’s something about their baptisms that doesn’t seem routine to me. The two children were baptised, not at their local church, but while they were visiting their mother’s friend in Pforzheim, and Susanne notes in her memoir that “as we were both ill in bed at the time the pastor had to come and visit us”. This seems to me like her mother was very keen to get the baptisms done quickly, and I wonder if there was a particular law or event which triggered her decision to do so. I haven’t yet identified what spurred her on, and I’d love to find out more about Susanne’s baptism, because it may well have been instrumental in saving her life over the next twelve years. The copy certificate that we have was issued on 6 October 1943 – presumably the original had been destroyed in the air raid two months earlier.


Susanne’s baptismal certificate

The 1935 Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour (commonly referred to as the Nuremberg Laws) classified Susanne as a Mischling (half-breed, or mongrel). Under the terms of these laws, Mischlinge who had been baptised fared a lot better than those belonging to the Jewish religious community, who were subject by law to the same mistreatment as ‘fully Jewish’ people. Her father, married to an ‘Aryan’ woman and with baptised children, was classed as a ‘Privileged Jew’. His citizenship was taken from him, and he lost almost all of his rights, but he was initially left out of the deportation plans.


Die Nürnberger Gesetze (The Nuremberg Laws), 1935

Susanne wrote in her memoir that their life after the Nuremberg Laws was “a very insecure existence”. Susanne’s father was forced into hiding several times during pogroms, and the family were often not sure where he was, or whether he was safe. The Gestapo turned up at their apartment on more than one occasion, and they lived in constant fear of deportation. At school (while the children were still permitted to attend) they were forced to engage with the very propaganda which explicitly classified them as “monstrosities halfway between man and ape” (Mein Kampf). Susanne’s parents constantly reminded the children not to do anything which would draw attention to themselves, so they kept quiet and obedient, performing the Hitler Gruss (salute) to adults, and giving nobody reason to denounce them. Like most of Berlin their family was desperately hungry. They spent many sleepless nights in the bomb shelter (except for her father, who wasn’t allowed in) simultaneously terrified of the bombs, and yet desperately wanting those dropping them to win the war and save them from the Nazi persecution.

Perhaps the closest call for the family was ‘The Final Roundup’ carried out in Berlin at the end of February 1943. The mission’s goal was to leave Berlin completely free of Jews. The only Jewish people still living in Berlin by this point were those in intermarriages (and the Mischling children of those intermarriages) and those working in armaments factories. I’ve always known that my family were caught up in the infamous ‘Rosenstrasse protests’ sparked by this roundup, but I hadn’t known how lucky Susanne and her brother were to have avoided being inside the building with their father, rather than outside protesting with their mother. Workplaces and households with Jewish members were raided. Anybody with a ‘J’ on their identity card was taken to be temporarily held before deportation. I don’t know why my Oma and her brother weren’t taken by the SS at this time and held at Rosenstrasse, as many other Mischlinge were.

Phillip ID group

Susanne’s father’s ‘Kennkarte’ (ID Card), marked with a J

Ever reluctant to lose the support of the people, Nazi officials were worried about the backlash Aryan citizens might cause if their Jewish spouses and Mischling children were deported. That’s why, during The Final Roundup, Adolf Eichmann (the deportation executive) directed Mischlinge and the Jewish men and women in intermarriages to be held separately at a building on Rosenstrasse. The aim was to create the illusion that these individuals (between 1700-2000) were headed for a different, non-fatal, destination. The Nazis had succeeded in deporting so many Jewish people without popular resistance, because they had first segregated them socially from the Aryan population. But this was not the case for those in intermarriages, who had previously been guaranteed protection because their spouses were citizens. Within hours of Berlin’s remaining Jewish population being rounded up, a crowd of distressed spouses (primarily wives) had gathered outside the building on Rosenstrasse demanding the release of their loved ones. Over the next week or so, these women formed the largest, and perhaps the only, full-scale protest against the Holocaust in Nazi Germany.


A page from Oma’s diary covering the period of the Rosentrasse protests

My Oma went to the Rosenstrasse protests several times herself. Like many other wives, her mother attempted every day for over a week to hand some food to a guard to pass on to her father. On one occasion a guard agreed to take the small package from her, but they later found out that her father had never received it. Susanne’s diary from the time, and her memoir, unfortunately don’t go into much detail about her experiences at the protests, and this is one of the main areas my research has focussed on so far. It’s very difficult to read about the conditions in the Rosenstrasse building, even knowing that the men like Susanne’s father, who were eventually allowed to return to their homes, were relatively ‘lucky’, compared with the fates of millions of other Jews in Europe. There was a huge air raid one night, and the Jewish prisoners in the Rosenstrasse building must have been terrified that a bomb would fall on them. Perhaps some would have welcomed that death, over the one they feared they were soon to be sent to. Some men held at Rosenstrasse committed suicide to escape deportation.

Eventually those held in the Rosenstrasse building were released, as Goebbels couldn’t risk these protests spreading and undermining the idea that Jewish deportations were what German citizens wanted. The other 7,978 individuals who had been rounded up in the same operation were deported, and more than 50% of them sent straight to the gas chambers. When her father was freed, after being held for eight days, Susanne didn’t even recognise the man who turned up at their door at 6am. In her memoir she wrote:

My father had had a nervous breakdown in the Rosenstrasse and had been lying on a stretcher in the cellar for the last few days. The conditions had been intolerable, with about 60 men sharing a small room night and day, without being able to sit down. The hallucinations he had there, while lying on the stretcher, left a deep impression on him for many years.

There’s still a lot more I need to find out about The Final Roundup and Rosenstrasse, and this is just one of the major events I plan to include in my Oma’s life story; her diaries and memoir are full of incredible stories. And I’m still getting used to working with these sorts of sources. As an archaeologist, I’ve become slightly wary of using historical accounts, because I’ve seen how often the idealised written source contradicts the reality preserved in the ground. Whether consciously or subconsciously, people lie and omit things from the histories they record – I’ve heard several stories of things my family experienced during this time that my Oma didn’t write down. I’ve also found details in my research on Mischlinge of things that she never mentioned at all. I know that there is a difference, for example, between decrees being passed and laws being effectively enforced, but sometimes I’m not sure whether my Oma really didn’t suffer as a result of a certain law, or whether she just chose not to write about it.

This book isn’t going to be an easy one to write. I still have so much to learn about the lives of Mischlinge in Nazi Germany, and there are boxes of documents my Oma kept which I need to understand. It’s all quite emotionally draining, and some days I can’t face thinking about it at all. But I do think it’s an interesting story, and a very important one for people to hear.

Further reading: Resistance of the Heart: Intermarriage and the Rosenstrasse Protest in Nazi Germany, Nathan Stoltzfus (London, 1996)

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Death, taxes and the voices of our ancestors

The inspiration behind this post is twofold; firstly, the ongoing work of Dr Laura King, Dr Nick Barratt, Jackie Depelle and many others to encourage closer co-operation between academic historians and genealogists, but more immediately, a tweet by Hallie Rubenhold, the author of The Five, a recently-published and fascinating book which puts the victims of Jack the Ripper centre stage and allows us to hear their voices and understand their lives. On 14 March 2019, Hallie tweeted:

I do feel that what our culture recognises as ‘history’ needs some recalibrating. For too long its focus has been ‘the great deeds of great men’ – monarchs, Generals, politicians, wars, Acts passed by governments. By these standards, the lives of ordinary people are disregarded.


This struck a chord with me as, on the same day and at almost exactly the same time, I had tweeted this:

Lord Denning’s 1966 Committee on Legal Records concluded that “legal records should not be kept for purely genealogical uses.” His report resulted in the wholesale destruction of 1000s of records which would have made our work today more productive.

Feel free to boo and hiss…


Lord Denning, Master of the Rolls (1962-1982). Feel free to boo and hiss…

My background is in family history and I was fortunate enough to work for the National Archives for many years. During my time at the Family Records Centre I was able to gain some in-depth knowledge of the key sources for family historians. One of the areas which I was most interested in was the Inland Revenue’s collection of records relating to the collection of death duties and I developed a good understanding of how the records worked and how they might be best used by family historians.

Briefly, the surviving records comprise:

  • a series of registers, dating from 1796 to 1903, in which the payments of death duties (i.e. Legacy Duty, Succession Duty and Estate Duty) are recorded
  • a series of contemporary indexes (or ‘alphabets’) which, in the pre-digital world provided the means of access to the registers[1]
  • a collection of correspondence for the years 1812-1836 only
  • a sample of case files (residuary accounts) also dating from 1796 to 1903

The registers are a treasure trove for family historians and my talk about them – Death & Taxes; understanding the Death Duty registers – is one of my most popular. I did the talk for a family history group earlier this week and it was while preparing for it that I started to ponder a theme which I felt that these documents illustrated particularly well; namely the way in which the voices of our ordinary ancestors have been silenced. Or, to put it another way, the way in which our ability to retell the stories of the lives of our ancestors has been ‘culturally suppressed’ through the selective preservation of records. So, when I saw Hallie’s tweet, I knew I had to get my thoughts in to some sort of order.

The residuary account files (TNA record series IR 19) provide a perfect example of this. As a direct result of Lord Denning’s 1966 report, the decision was made to destroy the files but, in line with Denning’s conclusion that “historians wanted records which illustrated the workings of the courts”[2], a ‘specimen sample’ of the files was preserved. The sample comprises 25 randomly selected files from each year between 1796 and 1811 and 50 files per year thereafter, up to 1903 (25 files relating to administrations and 25 relating to wills from each year). It looks as if they literally walked along the shelves and pulled bundles of 25 files at a time; the rest were incinerated.

It’s difficult to say precisely how many files were destroyed. There are over 3 million entries in the contemporary ‘alphabets’ and if only 50% of the entries related to cases which had residuary accounts we would be looking at 1.5 million files[3]. Even if it was only 10% we would still be dealing with a substantial collection of records. Instead we are left with 233 bundles comprising, by estimation, no more than 5000 files.

1854-Arthur Scollay death duty IR26-528 f.495 (2)

Death Duty register from 1854, showing references to the now-destroyed residuary accounts.
The National Archives reference: IR26/528 f.495

And access to this surviving ‘sample specimen’ is anything but straightforward; in fact I would argue that a speculative search is almost certainly going to be a waste of time, as your chances of finding a surviving file is so low. However, this is a collection of records crying out for a cataloguing project; if your ancestor’s file happens to have survived, believe me, you would want to know about it.

Each of the files (from 1812 onwards) includes a pre-printed form which summarises the value of the deceased’s estate, “subdividing the estate under broad headings”. This quote is taken from the National Archives’ description of the IR 19 series[4] but what the catalogue doesn’t tell us is that virtually every file (at least all the ones that I’ve seen) also includes an inventory of the deceased’s property. As the probate courts stopped asking for inventories to be taken in 1782, the value of these records, not just to genealogists, but also to local, social, political and economic historians is surely obvious. I seriously believe that these records, had they not been wantonly destroyed, would now be recognised as one of the most important sources for nineteenth century family history research, alongside our census returns, wills and birth, marriage and death records.

IR 19-55 part of inventory

Inventory of Stephen Turner of Westfield, Sussex from residuary account file (1829).
The National Archives reference: IR19/55

It would be easy to defend Lord Denning on the grounds that perhaps people weren’t so aware of the potential importance of such documents fifty years ago but that argument can quickly be addressed by reference to a letter written to the Home Office in 1891 by the then-Registrar General, Brydges Henniker. It had been suggested that the returns from the 1851 and 1861 census should be disposed of as they were taking up valuable space in the Houses of Parliament. Henniker’s response is music to the ears:

…in my humble opinion it would be very unwise to destroy National records, the value of which will probably be hereafter very great to those persons who wish to investigate the condition of this country in past times. It is doubtlessly true that these documents have not been hitherto consulted. Not only, however, is it within my knowledge that they would already have been examined, had not the difficulty of access to them been so great as to be practically insuperable to a private enquirer, but I would point out that the value and utility of such records depends to a great extent upon their antiquity, and that documents which are as yet only forty years old have not yet reached their stage of full utility[5].

But it’s not just the lack of forethought on Denning’s part which I find so infuriating; there’s another side to the selection process which brings us right back to Hallie Rubenhold’s comment about history’s focus being on “the great deeds of great men – monarchs, Generals, politicians…” Because in addition to the ‘specimen sample’ which we’ve already looked at, a separate collection (in record series IR 59) was made of files relating to, what the National Archives’ catalogue describes as the accounts of ‘well-known persons’.

The series currently comprises 1398 files (it’s still accruing, although the most recent addition appears to be from 2003). And guess what? The files relate almost exclusively to those in the upper echelons of society and, you probably won’t be too surprised to hear that fewer than 100 of them relate to women – and many of the women included are members of the royal family or of the nobility.

There are, of course, some worthy names on the list; it includes some of our greatest writers, artists and scientists but a quick glance confirms my suspicion that members of the nobility and gentry are, shall we say, over represented…?

I always used to feel that it was a good thing that these files had been retained; that in some respects, having them was better than having none. And, as any destruction of archives necessarily carries with it some serious questions, I can understand why I felt that way. But now I’m not so sure.

The preservation of these accounts of ‘well-known persons’ just serves to reinforce the idea that the lives of these people are of more historical importance than the lives of those whose files went up in flames fifty or so years ago. Here’s that ‘cultural suppression’ in action and it goes right to the heart of the debate about the silencing of the voices of the ‘ordinary’ citizen.


[1] The alphabets are available on the Findmypast website at: https://search.findmypast.co.uk/search-world-Records/index-to-death-duty-registers-1796-1903
[2] Archives and Archivists in 20th Century England by Elizabeth Shepherd (2016) p.46
[3] I realise that I need to research this question more thoroughly but my experience of using these records in my own research suggests that the majority of the entries in the registers are annotated with the tell-tale R.A. reference.
[4] http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C9357
[5] TNA HO 45/10147/b19513 quoted in Census: The Expert Guide by Peter Christian and David Annal (Bloomsbury Press, 2014). With thanks to Audrey Collins for bringing the quote to my attention.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

52/52 When it comes to family heirlooms, it doesn’t get much better than this. The Christmas present given to my mum in 1927 (when she was 4 months old) by her maternal grandparents, complete with the original accompanying note written by my great grandfather.


Silver spoon and ‘pusher’. A Christmas gift to my mum from her grandparents, 1927

51/52 One of my favourite family heirlooms comes out of its box once a year and takes pride of place on our family Christmas Tree. It belonged to my grandma and it’s about 50 years old. It serves as a reminder of Christmases past and offers hope for the future.


Christmas Tree ornament, formerly owned by my grandma, ca.1960s

50/52 As a teenager, my granny worked for Boots, the chemists. Here’s another gem from her treasure box; a Christmas card from Jesse and Lady Boot which would have dropped through the letter box of her Edinburgh tenement flat almost exactly 100 years ago.


Christmas Card from Sir Jesse and Lady Boot, sent to my granny, 1919

49/52 Postcards are a great source for local & family history research. One of my favourite acquisitions is this view of Portobello Beach, c.1915, when my gt grandparents were living there. Their address was 26 Promenade, in the large building with the turrets.


Portobello Beach, postcard, ca.1915

48/52 Here’s another from my favourite family heirloom, my grandma’s photo album. This is her posing on a motorbike with her friend Christine in the side car. I’d love to know more about this period in her life. She seems to have had an amazing time in her 20s.


Photograph of my grandma (Margaret Howland) and her friend Christine Peace Hope, ca.1930

47/52 I’ve been at my dad’s in Edinburgh for the past few days. I spent much of my time there relaxing in his conservatory, on the wall of which is this Cart Plate, an early form of vehicle registration, which once belonged to my 2xGt Grandfather, James Annal.


Cart plate, formerly owned by my great great grandfather, James Annal of Lythes, South Ronaldsay, Orkney

46/52 My great grandfather was a railwayman, exempted from military service in WW1. His brother John Henry Norquay Annal wasn’t so lucky. He served with the Sutherland Highlanders & the Gordon Highlanders and was killed in action on 22 March 1918. #LestWeForget


John Henry Norquay Annal, killed in action, 22 March 1918

45/52 One of the family’s most treasured possessions is this recipe book, started by my wife’s great aunt in 1912. Luise Schwarz survived WW2, despite being deported to Gurs in 1940 and returned to her native Landau, where she died in 1966. Apfelstrudel anyone?


Recipe book of Luise ‘Liesel’ Schwarz, 1912

44/52 My grandad joined the RAF in WW2. He joined as an Aircraftman 2nd Class and was promoted to Corporal in September 1941. His character was ‘Very Good’ and he earned a Good Conduct Badge. I know all this because I got a copy of his service record last week.

William Annal RAF Uniform 2

My grandfather, William Annal, ca.1941

43/52 My grandma was illegitimate and her mother went to a lot of trouble to try to cover it up. On a 1909 passenger list she appears as a widow with her young child, while the 1911 census records my grandma as her niece. Social stigma has a lot to answer for.


Margaret Howland senior and junior, ca.1914

42/52 I think I’ll just leave this one to speak for itself. Taken from my 1975 school report: ‘History E Tests suggest a brain about average in the form but since every piece of work has to be driven out of him – often late – it is not easy to classify him. DW’


My school History report, 1975

41/52 It’s quite rare to have pictures of our ancestors at work, particularly our female ones. So I’m delighted to have this photo of my granny, which helpfully has a note on the back, written by my mum. “Mother at Boot’s, Argyle Place”. Edinburgh, mid-1920s?

Elizabeth Gray Davidson in Boots, Argyle Place, Edinburgh 1920s

My granny, Elizabeth Gray Davidson, Boots, Argyle Place, Edinburgh, ca.1922

40/52 My mother-in-law was a very talented artist and we have a number of her paintings around the house. One of her most precious pieces of work is this 1945 calendar which she made for her mother. The dates worked for 2018 so we had it on display last year.


Calendar, by Susanne Schwarz, 1945

39/52 In May 1936, my grandparents applied for a house in the new Edinburgh suburb of Carrick Knowe. My grandma kept this document, confirming their application and setting out the terms of their tenancy. She lived there until shortly before her death in 1990.


Tenancy agreement, 1936

38/52 If any of our ancestors’ correspondence survives, it’s probably letters written to them rather than by them. Here’s a letter from a friend of my granny’s, written in 1925. With its personal touches, it tells me more about her than most official documents.


Letter written to my granny, 1925

37/52 I never knew my paternal grandfather, William Annal. He died nearly eight years before I was born but I have lots of photos of him as well as this charcoal portrait which was made in 1944 by Victor Frank Canning while they were both serving in the RAF.


Portrait of my grandfather, William Annal by V F Canning, 1944 (in charcoal)

36/52 My wife’s ancestor, Christopher Hulme, was born on the Staffordshire farm which his family had farmed for centuries, but ended up, literally, in the gutter! In 1851 his address was The Gutters, Macclesfield, the centre of a major cholera outbreak in 1849.


The Gutters, a slum area of Macclesfield, from Old Macclesfield by Doug Pickford, 1984

35/52 Old family letters provide us with a rare opportunity to hear our ancestors’ voices. Here my mother-in-law, aged 12, is writing to her grandmother ‘Liebe Großmütti’ in 1939 and we have the added bonus of a personal illustration. Note the Sütterlin script.


Letter written by Susanne Schwarz to her grandmother, 13 February 1939

34/52 I’m away this week, staying in a gîte in Brittany. Summer holidays are a big part of our lives today but they were important for our ancestors too. Here are my mum and her brothers Charlie and Dennis on the beach at Aberdour in Fife sometime around 1936.


Charles, Dennis and Kathleen Flynn, Aberdour, Fife ca.1936

33/52 I have a long list of things that I intend to research when I have the time; this photo is near the top of it. It shows my great grandfather David John Davidson as an Edinburgh militiaman, in the 1890s. He’s right in the middle of the picture. An officer?


Edinburgh Militia, c.1890s

32/52 Most of my ancestors seem to have died (peacefully?) in their beds but John Flynn was less fortunate. He drowned in Granton Harbour in August 1881 having been imprisonned for stealing a dog just three months earlier. It’s difficult not to link the events.


Edinburgh Evening News 30 May 1881 p.3 col.b

31/52 My 3x grt grandfather Peter Annal is the ancestor I’d most like to know more about. Born in 1799, he spent his 20s working in Hudsons Bay & had a child with a local Metis woman before returning to Orkney, where he married and had 13 more. He died in 1892.


30/52 When it comes to getting to know your ancestors there’s nothing quite like a good photo album. I inherited one from my grandma, full of pictures from the late 1920s/early ‘30s. Here’s one of my favourites, including my grandad, at the front on the right.


My grandfather, William Annal (front right) with unknown friends, ca.1930

29/52 Born on Eday, a small Orkney island in 1857, my 2x great grandfather, James Miller, moved to Kirkwall as a young man and then to Edinburgh, where he died in 1946. I often struggle to comprehend the changes he must have witnessed during his long lifetime.


Birth certificate of James Miller – National Records of Scotland, 1857 Eday

28/52 I’ve inherited some great family photos and this is one of my favourites. It was taken outside the family home in South Ronaldsay, Orkney, probably following the funeral of my 2x great grandfather, James Annal, in 1921. I know who 9 of the 10 people are.


The Annal family, outside the farm at Lythes, South Ronaldsay, 1921

27/52 My family doesn’t have a long history of formal education. My dad went to George Heriot’s and my brothers & I went to Watford Grammar School but we didn’t take it any further. In 2015 my older daughter was the first member of the Annal family to graduate.


My wife, Liz, our daughter Catherine and me, at Catherine’s graduation, 2015

26/52 As Family Bibles go, it’s not exactly the most informative, but it’s been in my wife’s family for nearly 153 years now. James Wadsworth, the original owner, was her 4x great grandfather. It was given to my father-in-law when he went to Cambridge in 1951.


Bible, formerly owned by James Wadsworth of Macclesfield

25/52 I spent the last few days on the Isle of Man, the birthplace of my grandma’s maternal grandparents. Having Manx ancestors turns out to be a thoroughly good idea; the land/tenancy records are plentiful and detailed and practically every adult left a will.

1800-Ewan Howland of Andreas will (1)_e

Opening section of the will of my 5x great grandfather, Ewan Howland of Andreas, Isle of Man (1800)

24/52 As average life expectancy grows, so does the number of people whose great grandparents are still alive when they’re born. All eight of mine had died before I was born; my grandma’s mum, Margaret Howland, who died in January 1958, was the closest I got.

scotlandspeople_d1958_685_08_0025z (Edited)

Death certificate of Margaret Howland – National Records of Scotland ref: 1958 Leith 685/8 73

23/52 Family heirlooms come in all shapes and sizes. Here’s my personal favourite, but quite how my granny, living in her tenement flat in a very working class part of Edinburgh, ended up with this late 19th Century French mantle clock, I will never understand.


My Granny’s late 19th century French mantle clock

22/52 If I could solve just one family history brickwall it would be the question of my grandma’s paternal grandfather’s parentage. I have a theory that I’ve been unable to disprove after 40 years of searching. I’m just waiting for that vital piece of evidence!

D7o3huNXsAELmzf.jpg large

The collapsed gravestone of my 2x Great Grandfather, Thomas Port (c.1822-1900) in Key Hill Cemetery, Birmingham

21/52 I’ve always encouraged my daughters to take an interest in our family history. My younger daughter certainly has the bug and she’s just written a blog for my website about her ongoing research into her Oma’s life as a ‘Mischling’ in wartime Berlin.


A page from Oma’s 1943 diary

20/52 My father-in-law would have been 86 last Sunday. Born into a working class Macclesfield family, he benefited from the Social Mobility aims of the 1944 Education Act. He went to Grammar School, won a scholarship to Cambridge and ended up as an RAF Officer.

IMG_7674 (Edited)

John Hulme with his daughter, Elizabeth, c.1962

19/52 I never got to meet either of my grandfathers. My dad’s father died in 1953, before I was born. My mum’s left his family in Edinburgh and married bigamously in London. My only knowledge of him growing up was my Granny’s nickname for him: ‘Old Buggerlugs’

img_0076 (Edited)

My grandfather, Charles Flynn (1898-1968), aka ‘Old Buggerlugs’

18/52 After years of resisting, I bit the bullet a few months ago and took a DNA test. The results are now in and the Ethnicity Estimate looks quite convincing although I suspect that the 46% ‘Northern England’ largely relates to my Scottish Borders ancestors.


My ‘Ethnicity Estimate’ courtesy of ancestry.com/dna

17/52 My fascination with churchyards & gravestones may seem slightly macabre, but it’s difficult to ignore their value to family historians. These five lichen-encrusted stones standing together in an Orkney churchyard record the names of 19 of my relatives.

st peter's, south ronaldsay

Annal family gravestones in St Peter’s Kirkyard, South Ronaldsay, Orkney

16/52 If, like me, you have an unusual surname (and you’re a little bit OCD) a One-Name Study might be the thing for you. All Annals living today can trace their roots to either Orkney or Fife. Here’s the document which links the Yorkshire Annals to Anstruther.


Cupar Sheriff Court Register of Deeds – Warrants. National Records of Scotland ref: SC20/36/12

15/52 An awareness of sources for local, social & political history is essential for genealogists. My Howland ancestors worked in a lead mining community in Wanlockhead. Researching the lives and experiences of the miners is both enlightening and distressing.


Photograph from The Museum of Lead Mining, Wanlockhead Village

14/52 Each of our 32 3x great grandparents is as much a part of our genetic makeup as the other 31. Mary Jenkins of Oxford is just as important as my Orcadian Annals but I know next to nothing about her. Why do we spend more time researching some than others?

1808-benjamin layton mary jenkins marriage bod200_b_44_019 (Edited)

Marriage of Benjamin Layton & Mary Jenkins, St Ebbe’s, Oxford

13/52 How do we get the next generation to engage with FH? Perhaps the most important thing is to put our ancestors’ lives into historical context. My younger daughter is researching her grandmother’s life in Berlin in WW2 and now plans to write her life story.


My mother-in-law’s war-time diaries and sketchbook and Resistance of the Heart by Nathan Stoltzfus

12/52 I got married 37 years ago today. Not only did I gain a life-partner but I also instantly doubled the size of my family tree. And my wife didn’t just bring her love, kindness and support – she also provided me with English and German lines to research!

IMG_7045 (Edited)

Me and my wife, with her assorted English and German relatives, March 1982

11/52 My 85-year old dad’s with us for a couple of days, which gives me another opportunity to tease out some family history nuggets. An hour or two in the company of an old photo album is a great way of triggering memories. It’s amazing what you can pick up…


My dad (Eric Annal) aged about 16, outside his mum’s house in Carrick Knowe, Edinburgh, ca.1950

10/52 When do we become part of our family’s history? I suppose it starts the day we’re born, but we don’t see it until we’re much older. It was my younger brother’s 54th birthday yesterday – I guess we’re very much part of the history now! Here we are in 1967.


L to R: Me, my brother John and my brother Pete, ca.1967

9/52 It’s always nice when you find your ancestor on one of those ‘off the beaten track’ documents and it’s even better when you find their signature on it. Here’s my 3x great grandfather, Peter Annal, signing his contract with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1820.


Peter Annal’s contract with the Hudsons Bay Company, 1820, A32-20 (detail)

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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’.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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

Posted in Local History | 2 Comments

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment