Wednesday, 30 June 2010


Crime and Criminals in Victorian Kent by Adrian Gray (Meresborough books ISBN 0905270967)

also Crime and Criminals in Victorian Essex by Adrian Gray.

This is a very easy to read, straightforward account of various forms of criminal occurences across the county in Victorian times. Opening with the rather expected sections on Murder and manslaughter, through theft and onto sex crimes, Gray then covers Politics and incendiarism (or arson as we call it), assault and smugglers, before rounding it off with short chapters on policing and the poor law.

Throughout the cases Gray recalls, he demonstrates a good awareness and understanding of the social contexts of the time, and tells the tales with a nice sense of humour. The cases themselves seem to largely come from press reports or court records, and appear to be pretty reliable, and are well presented giving the reader a good solid basis for understanding some of the motives - or lack of - that lead these folks down the path they ended up!

For family historians in general, these books provide the reader with a lot of social history in an accessible format, and can often provoke ideas about how further research into ones own ancestors might be pursued. For readers with ancestors in the Counties covered, both books contain a list of places mentioned and principle 'characters' discussed. For those fortunate enough to find family members discussed inside, it will be a massive bonus! But even for those with ancestors in the villages mentioned, in addition to the general social context gained by reading this book, you will be reading about events that might well have directly or indirectly impacted on your ancestors lives if even for a short period. Would the local riot have been the topic for discussion at your ancestors pub that week? Or would your ancestor have shopped at the butchers who killed one of his customers?

Fascinating reading, but both books follow a very, very similar format - right down to the phrases used - so perhaps getting both books might prove a little pointless unless one has ancestors in both counties!

Sunday, 20 June 2010

WEST COUNTRY WITCHCRAFT - by Roy and Ursula Radford

"West Country Witchcraft" by Roy and Ursula Radford (1998 Peninsula Press ISBN1872640397)

Although there are many of these 'local witches and legends' type books scattered around gift shops across the country, this one stands out from the rest, being written by people who really know their subject and have done some fairly good research into the evidence they provide.

Rather than skimpy sketches of dubious lore attributed to various spots, the Radfords open up with an explanation of what witchcraft actually is, and its links with the Celtic cultures. They then go on to give some accounts of 'witchcraft' across the 'west country' (which seems to stretch as far as Gloucester!) dating back to the 14th Century. Most of these accounts use court records to illuminate the story, whilst others are quite specific in dates and names, and it might be possible to check the later ones through existing records to verify the names involved. What one gets from these tales and records, however, is a very real sense of just how witchcraft, or the belief in witchcraft, had quite an impact on the everyday lives of our ancestors. And should any doubts remain, a visit to the Witchcraft Museum at Boscastle will show how the old beliefs could be practiced in very tangible ways indeed.

It is a useful reminder reading a book like this, to see the world of our ancestors through their eyes rather than our own, and to think about what thoughts and beliefs affected them in their lives and time to time, especially if such thoughts are not ones that would occur to us today.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

OUR VILLAGE by Mary Russell Mitford

OUR VILLAGE by Mary Russell Mitford (Bracken Books 1992)

Originally published as an ongoing series articles in 'The Lady's Journal' during the 1820s, and released in a collected format in 1824, 'Our Village' is an everyday account of the Berkshire village of Three Mile Cross in the parish of Shinfield. This particular edition is beautifully illustrated throughout by paintings and details from the period that relate directly with the subject under discussion, thus providing an enchanting visual reference to complement the pictures being drawn by the text.

It does have to be said that whilst the language is very rich in description and in telling the tales of everyday life in the rural hamlet, the story presented does seem rather rosy and idyllic, which whilst chiming nicely with a popular romantic image of rural life in the past - and which presumably catered for the refined tastes of the readers of the aforementioned Journal - sits a little less easy with the picture presented by other rural accounts of the time. Perhaps the inhabitants of Three Mile Cross were just lucky... or perhaps Ms Mitford saw only what she chose to see?

Despite this possible drawback, the information packed into these pages is of immense value for anyone trying to get a feel for what rural life was like on a day to day basis in the 1820s. The characters Mitford draws of the inhabitants, their habits, their homes and their professional goings on are a joy to read, and impart all sorts of villagey folklore and popular thought. The days spent watching people enjoy the snowfalls, or going to the races, or experiencing the country cricket match give the reader a closeness to the people of the time unrivalled in drier academic tomes, and consequently bring our own ancestors that bit more to life in our imaginations.

For this reason alone, this book would be fascinating reading for family historians - and absolutely essential for anyone with early 19th Century ancestors living in our near Three Mile Cross, who may well find themselves unearthing a pen picture of their very own forebears!

An enjoyable, if slightly twee, portrayal of rural life from long ago that is well worth dipping into.

Available online in downloadable formats, but only in the old priint versions and without the equally useful paintings.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

THE CHURCHYARDS HANDBOOK by Peter Burman and Henry Stapleton

THE CHURCHYARDS HANDBOOK by Peter Burman and Henry Stapleton
Published by Church House Publishing. pp199

The Churchyards Handbook is a guide to the history and significance of churchyards, theur care improvement and maintenance. It is updated every so often, the most recent 4th Edition being c2002. The copy I have is the 3rd Edition released in 1988. All are available very reasonably on Amazon.

At first glance it might seem to be pushing the limits of what could be considered relevant to Family History to include such a book as in the reviews, but in truth, this is quite a goldmine of useful and relevant information both for Family Historians and also for those concerned about understanding and protecting the places where their ancestors lie buried.

The book includes many beautiful black and white photos from various churchyards, and there is an informative 9 page guide to these photos at the front of the book. This is followed by a guide to understanding churchyards, the differences of terminology for cemeteries, graveyards, etc, and the impacts of various trends and fashions over the years. The explanations of different approaches to commemorating the dead in different centuries and for different social strata is very useful for the family historian, and helps us gain the maximum degree of information from the various headstones, monuments, and plaques that mark our own ancestors; and can tell us something about the social standing of the village or town at different periods in history.

Of course, it isn't just gravestones that adorn many churchyards, and there are explanations about other such features as sundials, lych gates and crosses - all of which can add further understanding of the church's development and standing in the local community, and offer insights into what our ancestors experienced and witnessed as they attended ceremonies there.

There are also many practical aspects within the book also, that might help the family historian keen to preserve or repair ancestral graves, with advice on, for example, repainting lettering, and who to consult for help and permissions required.

The next section is a lengthy guide to various legal considerations surrounding churchyards, their care, and the regulations surrounding burials and monuments etc. There is also an explanation about Closed and Redundant Churchyards and how they are affected. It is probably useful to have the latest edition of the guide if this is something that you are considering studying in detail, but even the older editions still provide a basic understanding of the laws and principles surrounding them, and should be adequate for most concerns.

There are sections about the keeping of records over the years - always a subject of fascination for genealogists - and suggestions for comemorating cremations and, for example, the dead of the Parish who have been buried elsewhere. These are living concerns and are things that the more we think about now the better future genealogists will be able to do their work! There is advice on recording gravestones and their inscriptions before even more or lost to us, and about caring for the plants and wildlife in many churchyards too.

In all then, this book is a very useful addition to any family historian who likes to visit the places where our ancestors worshipped and lie buried. It will help gain the maximum information and understanding from trips to the graveyard, and will enhance the experience considerably. It might also suggest new means of accessing information about lost burials and monuments!


Apologies for the lack of reviews recently but I've been reading a lot of Anglo-Saxon stuff the last few weeks - and sadly very few people will find that relevant to Family History!

Sunday, 4 October 2009

The Strange Laws of Old England by Nigel Cawthorne

The Strange Laws of Old England by Nigel Cawthorne
Piaktus Books 2004

Seemingly marketed as one of those trivia books that people pick up as presents when they haven't really got a clue what else to buy, I wasn't really expecting much of useful insight to come from this tome written by the man famous for his Sex Lives of Hollywood Goddesses!

However, on closer inspection he has also written a biography of Alexander the Great, so perhaps it isn't too surprising that the book is in fact a rich source of fascinating material - much of which sheds light on the legal conditions facing many of our ancestors... a tenuous connection maybe, but nevertheless a worthy expenditure of £5 if you are stuck looking for something to while away a long journey!

There's an interesting section on the various Courts that exist or pretend to exist across the land, and a summary of legal quirks from Feudal times, but it's when Cawthorne starts on those laws that would have affected the bulk of the population that it gets really interesting!

Whilst most people will be aware of the Puritan crackdown on anything that might carry the tainted whiff of enjoyment about it - and Cawthorne here mentions a legal quirk that questions whether Laws passed during the Commonwealth actually have any legal standing as they were pretended not to have been made after the Restoration - but were never specifically unmade either - there have been plenty of other laws enacted to curtail folks' fun... Though where the Act passed by James I that said young women were not to be seen in public unless their breasts were exposed to the nipple as a symbol of their virginity stands is anyone's guess, whilst an Ordinance in Montrose bans any animals - wild or domestic - from copulating in any public place within the city limits - the owner being liable for £15 fine and upto 25 days in gaol!

Food has often been the subject of strict regulation, and our ancestors must have faced a legal minefield at times, such as during Edward III's time when it became illegal to have more than two courses at a meal - with special provisions preventing people claiming that soup was instead a sauce! This monarch also had the time to ban anyone other than Royalty and Church folks from wearing fur - an Act that would be welcomed today, but which must have posed problems for the 'law abiding' poacher...

The section on 'Peculiar Punishments' has to be one of the most enlightening if not horrifying parts of the book as the occurrence of branding and mutilation seems to have been such a regular thing that many of our forebears must have had family members so affected, whilst visits to the stocks may have been a frequent experience for the homeless poor after Henry VII's time. Henry VIII on the other hand managed to have over 70,000 people executed during his reign - over 5 a day. Given the population at that time we could all find an ancestor or two that met their end this way if we can get the sources to go back far enough.

In short, this amusing book provides a lot of information in a very readable way, and presents a story of the tribulations our ancestors could have faced on a regular basis. It is always easy to assume that a relation in our tree who dies young had some disease or was killed fighting, but I wonder just how many of them met their end thanks to a legal system that could be impossible to stay clean of, and for which the penalties of failing to do so could be very harsh indeed!

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

The Rebecca Riots by Christopher Schenk

The Rebecca Riots by Christopher Schenk
Longman 1985 (64pp) ISBN 0582221714

After a short period visiting Regency London it's back to our restless agrarian ancestors again for the latest book!

Longman books are largely written for school students, and as such provide introductory volumes for subjects that can inspire the reader to investigate further. This volume covers a series of riots in rural Wales in the early 1840s, ostensibly over the imposition of Road Tolls - but soon encompassing various rural labouring grievances including the Workhouses - and which tended to feature a ringleader dressed in women's clothing as a form of disguise - usually 'named' as Rebecca.

Using a combination of fictional presentation and original source material, largely drawn from newspaper reoprts and a diary kept by someone close to the events, Schenk provides the reader with an enjoyable outline of what the Rebecca Riots were about, and of the types of people involved or affected by them. And of how the authorities reacted to them.

In short, this book is a useful introduction for anyone with Welsh Rural ancestors who might have been caught up in the riots, and for anyone interested in how the rural poor fought against the national legal developments that they had no input into or vote upon.