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.