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.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

A Country Camera 1844 - 1914 by Gordon Winter

A Country Camera 1844 - 1914 by Gordon Winter
Originally published 1966 reprinted by Penguin 1975

The earlier companion piece to Winter's A Cockney Camera, this wonderful collection is slightly less well organised than the latter volume, and sadly there seem to be fewer names attached to the folks in the photos. That aside however, this is another gem of a collection with some quite magnificent portraits and location shots. The cover, for example, is given over to a most impressive shot taken in 1857 of one Robert Morvinson who was born when the United States were still a British Colony!

Accompanying the photos is Winter's warm and informative text, giving information about the social context of the times, the people who were either in the photo or responsible for it being taken, and often some entertaining stories of how some of the sharpest early shots were located - including several that had been used as cloches in someone's vegetable garden!

Sometimes it is the fascinating locations shots that really grip the reader - such as the stunning street panorama of Castle Street, Farnham in the 1880s - other times it is the portraits that tell their stories of hardship, elegance, and bygone fashions which draw you in. But there's always something new to be found in the collection each time you browse through.

Covering all sorts of topics, such as old Crafts and Trades, village occasions, people at work and lesiure, hiring fairs, country 'sports', various forms of transport and all sorts of buildings from churches to pubs, this book will offer insights into the lives of our rural forbears in many different ways, and really bring home some of the occasions and feelings that we can only otherwise read about.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

The Regency Underworld by Donald A. Low

The Regency Underworld by Donald A. Low
Originally published 1972 - revised 1999
Sutton Books ISBN 0750921226

For anyone expecting this to be a companion copy to Kellow Chesney's masterful 'The Victorian Underworld' (which I've read many times and will review at some point..) this book might prove a little disappointing - especially from a Family History perspective. The reason for this is the approach taken by Low is more general, with less specific detail about everyday life of the lower orders.

However, what he does do is put forward a very convincing argument that much of the popular image of the Victorian Underworld actually belongs to the Regency days, with writers such as Dickens drawing more on their memories of this period than their contemporary times.

The Regency Period was of course one of extravagance and display - the time of the Dandy and the Fop - and those without wealth still needed to act and dress as if they had money to spare. Low puts all this within the social context of such concerns as the Napoleonic Wars, the growth of the nouveau rich, and the move away from rural idylls.

The book is almost totally focused on London, and has a good study of the attitudes to crime and policing that developed from the late 18th Century into the early Victorian period, and how this impacted on those who carried out their underworld trades. There are also chapters dedicated to the Medical Underworld - with a lot of stories and information about the Resurrection Men and other dubious goings on - and a chapter on Gambling - a theme which underpins much of the background to the whole period. There is also a long chapter about the fictional exploits of the original Tom and Jerry which whilst being used to draw out real-life situations seems a little odd in the overall context of the book. It does however provide the opportunity for more magnificent contemporary illustrations, and this is an area that the book excels in throughout - the reproductions are superb and come from a wide range of sources that really provides the reader with a flavour of what London was like two hundred years ago!

So, whilst this book won't give the family historian quite the depth of understanding into their ancestors lives as 'The Victorian Underworld' does, it does provide a very readable and enjoyable overview of the background in which London ancestors in the Regency period got through their probably rather short allotted spans. Especially if they were of the better off sort!

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Vanishing England by P.H. Ditchfield & Fred Roe

Vanishing England by P.H. Ditchfield & Fred Roe
Originally Published 1910

Having previously read P.H. Ditchfield's 'Charm of an English Village' this book was a little disappointing from a Family History perspective, as it doesn't match the individual location coverage of the earlier volume. However, as a general summary of the state of all things 'English' that the author considered to be under threat in 1910 it is as comprehensive a survey as one could hope for. It is also quite illuminating that the concerns shared by so many today were already being expressed by our ancestors a century ago!

Opening with chapters on Walled Towns, the architecture of old streets and lanes, and Castles, Ditchfield shows what soon becomes a recurrent ability to illustrate his arguments with detailed and knowledgeable examples from the length and breadth of England. Whilst this richness of detail and knowledge is quite fascinating however, after a while the reading becomes something of a wish-list of places one feels one must visit - and always in the back of the mind is the sorrowful worry that his examples may have since vanished themselves in the intervening century.

The many chapters cover a wide variety of other topics, including Prehistoric Remains, Old Bridges, and Old Municipal Buildings; but the chapters most likely to be of interest to Family Historians include those on Vanishing or Vanished Churches, Old Inns, and the Disappearance of Old Documents - a chapter of particular interest and of some considerable sorrow as Ditchfield recalls tales of previous mishaps that saw the destruction of many a parish record!

Although written a century ago, Ditchfield's concerns and suggestions for future preservation remain as urgent and as vital today as they have ever done, and the frequent reminders that each generation is simply the guardian of the past entrusted to keep it safe for future generations is a sentiment that many of those who hold office ought to remember far more diligently - not least those currently responsible for Swale Borough Council's continued desecrations!

The book is illustrated richly throughout by Fred Roe's evocative line sketches which bring many of the examples to a touching life, and which provide a change of emphasis from the repeated whistlestop trips across the country.

This book is well worth picking up if you see it available, or it can be read for free on the Internet at Project Gutenburg:

Perhaps the easiest option for those who find the solid writing of earlier generations somewhat heavy going is to put the name of the village or area you are interested in the search engine and see if Ditchfield has any comments or tales to pass on.

But however you read or dip into this book, I would challenge you not to start seeing the urban landscape within your own town in a rather different light!

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Boughton Pottery by L G Welland

Boughton Pottery by L G Welland
Published by The Faversham Society 1982
34pp £2.95

Browsing the extensive range of local studies available in Faversham's heritage centre, this report caught my eye for two reasons - I have ancestors from Boughton, and I have ancestors with the description 'Tile Maker' in the census returns. Sadly the tilemakers weren't from Boughton and my Boughton folk were Ag Labs, but it looked a good bet for some general background understanding anyway!

The report starts off with a general overview of the role of village potteries in Kent, before setting the scene locally in Boughton with an account of the Courtney riots near here in 1838. It is the suggestion that the inquiry into those riots -which led to to the Dunkirk area becoming a Parish with its own Church etc - may have also provided the impetus to support local industry to provide employment alternatives to simply poverty-line rural occupations.

Next we are treated to a genealogical detective trail as Welland describes how he traces the names of the potters in Boughton through various sources back to High Halsted and sets the possible scene for the move to Boughton. This part is a joy for any genealogist to follow, and a model example for any beginner to pick up and draw ideas from. It also carries a very sombre warning in the discovery that the family behind the Boughton Pottery still seemed to view the High Halsted Church as their family church - and returned there for mass baptiosms, weddings etc. A practice that could prove a bit of a nightmare for genealogists trying to locate their own families, and makes one hope it wasn't too common a phenomenon!

Finally, there is the techie bit - a thorough account of how the various sorts of pottery were made, how the pottery itself was laid out and the various occupations and buildings involved, and how different seasons saw different problems. Accompaning the text are several detailed drawings showing the various tiles, roofing tiles, and other items, plus some depictions of how the machines used would have looked.

The result is a thoughtful and very useful insight into a village industry, set within the context of the social situation in the years prior to the pottery being established, and within the family history of the people who set it up and in whose line the pottery remained for nearly 100 years - until an accident during World War Two saw its demise. A great motivation to others to flesh out their own trees and put some context to their own ancestral families!

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Captain Swing in Sussex and Kent by Mike Matthews

Captain Swing in Sussex and Kent by Mike Matthews
The Hastings Press (2006). £7.99 pp118
ISBN 1904109136

A highly enjoyable book that covers a rural phenomena that has been largely overlooked, and oddly overshadowed by the more famous yet arguably less effective Luddite movement which the Swing Riots largely mirrored.

Basically, the Swing Rebellion of the early 1830s was a rural response to the introduction of the Threshing Machines which threatened rural labourers with unemployment and wage suppression. Taking the form of burnings and machine smashing, often accompanied by warning letters signed by the mysterious Captain Swing, this movement effectively delayed the mass import of threshing machines into the countryside by about two decades, and provoked national interest with The Times following proceedings closely, and sending reporters out into the fray.

This book documents their early beginnings in Kent, and follows their progress as they spread across the border into Sussex and finally touching Hampshire. Given the spread of these activities, and the direct impact the issue had on rural villages, it is likely that the majority of our Kentish and Sussex ag lab ancestors mentioned in the 1841 census would have been at least touched by the Swing activities, if not directly involved. Consequently, any understanding of what happened and its social impact offers us a rare insight into the daily lives and mind sets of that largely undocumented section of society.

Matthews has an engaging and very readable style which makes the document sources and newspaper extracts that he uses very accessible, and helps build a very vivid picture of the fears and desperations that both lead to the Swing Riots - and of those who were caught up in their consequences. The book contains a wealth of news articles, quotes and analysis, with many of the participants and their targets named - which is great for Family Historians! Even if ones own ancestors aren't directly named, there is a short bibliography and notes section which provides further avenues for research, and I would defy anyone with rural ancestors in these counties not to feel impelled to research their area a bit further after reading this book! So many of our ancestors will have been involved, and it is clear that the riots produced a considerable amount of paperwork. There will be many names on family trees that will be padded out by those resources!

A remarkable period that deserves to be better known within the annals of history. And a striking example of just how vulnerable the ruling elite were when the labouring classes united in their own defence. Highly recommended.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Money or Blood by David Hopker

Money or Blood by David Hopker
Privately published 1988 25pp

Subtitled 'The 1835 Riots in the Swale Villages' this pamphlet is one of those local booklets you can pick up in many villages outlining various incidents of historical interest in the area.

What sets this aside from most of those pamphlets is the detail that has gone into the research, and the plethora of names listed that were involved in the riots - an essential source of family background for anyone who has ancestors in the villages concerned.

Basically, this is the story of how rural labourers in the Swale area set out to challenge the new Poor Law amendments by making them unworkable - and how the powers that be sought to defeat them. Kicking off at Rodmersham village, the series of protests and riots made national news, and it could be argued that they played a not inconsiderable part in setting the minds of future reformers to take greater account of likely unrest from unpopular measures in the villages.

With some handy source extracts and photocopies of several documents from the time, this pamphlet is a very valuable account of a remarkable series of events that should be on the reading list of anyone with Kentish 'Ag Labs' in the 1840s!

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

A Cockney Camera by Gordon Winter

A Cockney Camera by Gordon Winter
Published by Penguin - first published 1971 as 'Past Positive' 128pp
ISBN 0140040110

Although called A Cockney Camera, this marvellous book really covers the whole of London, featuring photos and commentary on a range of subjects in late Victorian / early 20 th Century life in the capital.

Split neatly into sections covering such topics as Domestic Life, Rural Survivals, The Day's Work, The Church, Shops and Markets, The Pub, various types of transport, and leisure activities what is particularly pleasing is the way that unlike many photographic collections, Wilson annotates each picture with lengthy notes explaining the location, the date and most importantly for family historians - he names as many of the people in the photos as he can!

Each set of photos is accompanied by a commentary on the social life that is being considered, and whilst it is clear that Wilson certainly knows his Social History, he writes in an informal and engable fashion - his first sentence provides a suitable example: 'To enjoy life in London in the ninteenth century, the first and most important step was to choose the right parents.' To illustrate his underlying theme of the severe differentials between the wealthy and the poor, Wilson admits to focussing on the extremes in his selection of shots, many of which he has sourced from private collections.

With photographs illustrating early trades, various locations and buildings, social life in action, and some smashing portraits, this book will help anyone with Victorian ancestors from the metropolis garner a real feel of what their everyday life would have been like, and bring to vivid life the sights they would have been familiar with.

Although like many books I will be reviewing, this book is long out of print, it is easily available as a second hand item online, and whilst checking for its availability this morning, I noticed there is a companion volume called 'A Country Camera 1844-1914' which I've just ordered for £3.95 inc p&p! Hopefully a review of that item will be ready in a week or so's time.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Labouring Life in the Victorian Countryside - Pamela Horn

Labouring Life in the Victorian Countryside by Pamela Horn
Alan Sutton Publishing Limited.
First Published 1976 - reprint 1995 292pp
ISBN 0862994098

This is a thorough and very readable account of rural life in the 19th Century that will be of immense interest to those of us with those infamous 'Ag Lab' ancestors - which is most of us!

Opening with a background survey of the Rural Community, Horn draws on a number of reports and accounts on rural life compiled during the period in question, and includes sizeable quotes from the sources to provide a real flavour of the conditions and impressions of just what life was like in the rural areas. Informative chapters on Home Life and School follow, conjuring up images far removed from the cosy idylls of popular imagination, but not totally lacking in support and community. What comes across very clearly however is just how the sensibilities of the times differ so radically from our own, and how the routine of daily life was peppered with small rewards and entertainments - but always with the danger of near disaster just around the corner.

Other chapters include sections on working the land, cottage crafts and industries, and agricultural politics and the early unions - again giving very useful insights into the mind set of the rural population, the dangers and conditions they faced, and how they set about trying to improve their lot. Similarly, the issue of religion is discussed, and the differences in approach from both the Church of England and the dissenting groups in how they sought to keep their flocks from straying into each others hands - on the one hand trying to provide assurances through the traditional messages that faith would see people through the hard times, and on the other encouragement to better oneself through learning and organisation.

Holidays, sickness, poverty, old age and death take up the next few chapters, and give a good idea of how changing national political situations and initiatives actually played out in the front line of rural villages, with such schemes as the Poor Law Amendments of the 1830s provoking considerable outrage in many areas, and some of the last rural riots in history! Seeing how national campaigns and legislation actually impacted on the lives of real people is quite an enlightening process, and gives the reader a far greater appreciation of the changes that our ancestors lived through.

Finally, before a short summary, Horn details Crime and Punishment - oddly one of the most readable - for me - chapters in any social history! Much of this section details the slow growth of the new-fangled Police forces within rural areas, and how pretty darn easy it was for crims to get away with most things - especially as the chances of the death sentence receded quite sharply during the period in question. Poaching and punching seem to have been the pasttimes that brought legal action most often, although there seems to have remained quite a few of the opportunities for pilfering, adultering goods, and general trouble that the big towns are perhaps more generally associated with.

To summarise then, this is a very well researched book that details the development of rural England over 100 fairly turbulent years, and which sees a radical change in the role of the rural labourer and of villages in general. A decline of self-responsibility both as a community and as individuals towards a more outward looking mindset, with growing horizons, but also growing reliance on outsiders for everyday needs such as employment, goods, and institutional support.

There is a tendency for the examples and sources to focus on certain areas, such as Norfolk, Dorset and the Midlands and, from a genealogical perspective, a few more names included could have provided some real nuggets for a lucky few. That aside, however, this is a richly rewarding read, and with the copious notes, references and bibliography there are lots of signposts for the reseracher who wants to follow up on the many leads that this book will provoke.

A very highly recommended book.