The gifts of sound and vision

One of the frustrating things about family history is that no matter how much you find out about your ancestors, you never really feel acquainted with them unless you know what they looked and sounded like. The further back in time we go, the more difficult it becomes to find photographs, films or voice recordings of family members, so researching them can sometimes feel a little like conversing with a taciturn pen friend who one never meets up with in person. Sounds and images can make us care about our subjects, and even if we are unable to find illustrative media which relates directly to our ancestors we can still often find materials which capture something of the world in which they lived. Below I have highlighted a few of my favourite image, sound and film archives which are available on the web, and how they have helped me in my research.

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Images

Wherever possible, I try to illustrate my blog posts which contemporary pictures showing places my ancestors would have known, events they lived through or occupations they held. As someone with roots in the East Midlands and West Yorkshire I am lucky to be served by two excellent online photographic archives, Picture The Past and Leodis, covering these two areas. On many occasions they have provided me with useful images like the ones below of my great-great-grandfather Thomas England and a pram shop owned by my great-great-grandmother Emma Sillers (née Brook):

Deacons of Riddings Baptist Church
The deacons of Riddings Baptist Church, c. 1910, featuring my great-great-grandfather Thomas England on the far left. (via Picture The Past).
Sillers Prams
Sillers Prams, 1937, Vicar Lane, Leeds (via Leodis).

Similar local collections are available for many other regions, but national and specialist subject archives may also be of use. In previous posts I have used images from both the Imperial War Museums and the National Fairground Archive when discussing my First World War and travelling showman ancestors. Other more general collections I have found helpful include:

  • Archive Images – Describes itself as “a web based picture library for authors, publishers, local history buffs, genealogists, picture framers and print sellers”. Its collections are free to search but high-resolution non-watermarked images are only available upon payment.
  • The Card Index – An online archive of historic UK postcards which can be searched or browsed by location, subject or publisher.
  • Getty Images – One of the web’s largest online image collections containing a huge number of excellent high-resolution archive photographs.
  • Old Photos UK – An index of old photographs organised by location which allows users to submit their own images.

All of the above have been helped me get a better idea of what my ancestors’ lives would have looked like, and on occasion they have even turned up surprises like the photograph below from The Card Index, which very clearly features the sign for my great-great-grandmother Emma Sillers’s mail carts shop in Leeds.

Sillers Mail Carts
Vicar Lane, Leeds, c. 1910, showing my great-great-grandmother Emma Sillers’s mail carts shop on the left (via The Card Index).

Taken from virtually the same angle as the photo from the Leodis website above, it shows that between around 1910 and 1937 her business had begun specialising in prams in place of of mail carts.

Lastly, although not designed with genealogists in mind, it should be remembered that commercial websites dealing in old prints and postcards like ebay can be a good source of photographs unavailable elsewhere. In some cases, postcard sellers even include the sender’s name in the item’s description and a scan of the message on the back, making it possible to search by names as well as locations.

Sound

Often overlooked as a resource for local and family historians, sound archives can provide us with a way of finding out what our ancestors voices may have sounded like, the songs they would have known and the everyday noises which populated their auditory environment. By far the most important of these for UK researchers is the British Library’s Sounds archive, which holds thousands of recordings that can be listened to for free via their website. Some categories which may be of interest to family historians include:

  • Accents and dialects – Includes recordings of British PoWs from the First World War, a survey of English dialects taken between 1951 and 1974, and a selection of early spoken spoken word recordings taken from commercial 78 records.
  • Environment and nature – Mainly of interest for its period sound effects, featuring Victorian street scenes, leisure activities like football matches and funfairs, battles of the First and Second World Wars and a variety of historic workplaces.
  • Oral history – A diverse collection of voices of people from a variety of backgrounds and occupations, including Holocaust survivors, craftspeople and agricultural workers.
  • World and traditional music – Includes examples of regional folk music from the British Isles alongside many other countries.

While researching my England ancestors, most of whom were involved in Derbyshire’s mining industry from the early Nineteenth to the mid-Twentieth Centuries, I was able to use the collections above to gain an understanding of their environment which I never could have done with words and pictures alone. For example, this recording of retired collier Horace Brian,  who was born in north Derbyshire two years before my great-grandfather Tom England in 1876, provides me with an idea of what Tom’s accent may have sounded like, as well as some of the experiences he would have had at work. The British Library’s sound effects collection was also of help here due to it’s large number of mining-related recordings. One entitled At the coal face was of particular interest to me because, as a coal hewer, it would have been the daily soundtrack to Tom’s working life for close to half a century.

Film

Old film footage is perhaps the most evocative media through which we can learn about past societies. Although I have not yet been lucky enough to find any of my ancestors on film, my research has certainly benefited from the growing number of online film archives which are now available. Two of the most important are the news archive British Pathe, and the collections of British Film Institute, both of which contain early footage of many UK towns and cities. Although their URL unfortunately no longer appears to be active,  there was also a BFI-led initiative called Your Film Archives which aimed to provide a single-search interface allowing users to across seven regional film collections. These were:

It was while searching the Yorkshire Film Archive’s collections when a run of lucky strikes led me to discover of a piece of early film footage relating directly to my family. I had been searching for ‘Leeds’ just in case there were any contemporary films of Vicar Lane where my great-great-grandmother’s shop Sillers Prams was located (see photograph above). Among  my results was a street scene from 1898 which, although not featuring Vicar Lane itself, was still interesting for its depiction of late-Victorian city life.

The film ends with ‘phantom ride’ through the busy streets shot from the top of an electric tram. On about the third watch, two minutes and ten seconds in I spotted the words ‘Mail carts’ on the side of a building, which immediately raised alarm bells as I knew my great-great-grandmother had run a mail carts shop in Leeds city centre prior to establishing her pram business. The word above it looked like it could possibly be ‘Sillers’ but I needed to work out the location of the film to be certain.

Sillers mail carts screenshot
Screenshot from ‘Leeds Street Scenes’ (1898) showing a mail carts shop sign near the top left (via Yorkshire Film Archive).

I found the locations of my great-great-grandmother’s shops at 49 and 51 Vicar Lane via Google Maps, then attempted to follow the tram’s route on the map with my finger in time with the footage to see if they lined up correctly. Unfortunately they didn’t. As a last resort I checked the film’s comments for clues as to the location shown in the its closing seconds, when I noticed someone had mentioned it ‘obviously’ showed the route along Boar Lane from the Queen’s Hotel to the junction with Briggate. This was slightly disappointing at first but then I remembered that Emma Sillers’s first shop had been on Briggate in about 1900, roughly when the film was shot. I looked up the shop’s exact address which was 150 Briggate, then checked Google Maps for its present day location and there it was on the junction with Boar Lane, leaving me in no doubt that the mail carts shop in the film must have belonged to my ancestor. Later I was able to track down the photograph below via the Leodis website showing the same shop in the film four years on.

Sillers Mailcarts 1902
Sillers Mail Carts, 1902, 150 Briggate, Leeds. The sign for my great-great-grandmother Emma Sillers’s shop can be seen beneath the larger sign for ‘Yorkshire Relish’ (via Leodis).

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The websites mentioned above are just a few of my personal favourite image, sound and film archives and is by no means intended to be an exhaustive list. If you work in this area or know of any interesting local or national collections please feel free to mention them in the comments section.

There’ll always be an England (part 2)

This is the second post detailing the paternal ancestry of my grandfather Frederick England, the first of which you can read here. This entry focuses mainly on Frederick’s grandfather Thomas England and covers the period between 1850 and 1918.

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Born on 26 May 1850, Thomas England would have been the only one of his six siblings with little or no memory of their father James, who had died in a mining accident before Thomas was eighteen months old. For the next year and a half he was raised by his mother Alice alone, perhaps aided by his older sister Ann, until his mother’s second marriage to William Grice on 17 May 1853. He would have received only the most basic education, possibly at a Sunday School set up for miners’ children, before starting work as a pit boy at Swanwick Colliery aged ten, working twelve and fourteen hour shifts.

According to his obituary, four years later Thomas “met with a serious accident which caused an injury to his spine and he became a weigh clerk at the Swanwick New Pit where he stayed for another […] years. He then went into the colliery offices where he remained for 22 years” (The Derbyshire Courier, 2 March 1918, p. 1, col. 5). The exact chronology is somewhat unclear as the number of years Thomas is said to have worked as a weigh clerk is illegible (it could be five or six) but the jobs described match up with his occupations recorded in the 1871 and 1881 censuses (‘weighing machinist, colliery’ and ‘clerk in colliery office’ respectively). As a weighing clerk Thomas would have been responsible for recording the weight, quality and intended destinations of the coal waggons as they left the mine. Although operating the weighing machinery would have involved a certain amount of physical exertion this was far less strenuous work than anything below ground. In addition the opportunities for advancement would have been more numerous here, and it isn’t difficult to imagine how displaying an aptitude for numbers, attention to detail and accurate record keeping could have led to a promotion to the colliery offices. His obituary describes him as a ‘plodder,’ who gradually improved his position throughout his whole life.

Weighing the coals
Weighing coal at a pit head, from a Victorian print. Source: Illustrated London News, 21 September 1878, p. 285 (via Old Print).

By the time of the 1881 census, Thomas, now a thirty one year old married father of two, had moved away from Sleetmoor Lane next to Swanwick Colliery to 15 Park Street in Alfreton. This new address closer the town centre reflected his rise in social status from manual labourer to salaried white-collar worker. His wife Mary Ann Munks (sometimes spelled ‘Monks’, b. 30 April 1854, Bottesford, Leicestershire – d. 11 January 1913, Pye Bridge, Derbyshire), who he had married five years earlier at Swanwick Baptist Church, was the daughter of John Munks, a Leicestershire bricklayer’s labourer, and Ann Askew, a former servant and charwoman. In the 1871 census Mary Ann had also been working as a domestic servant, and although it’s not certain how she and Thomas met it’s possible her job may have drew her into his orbit. At this time even many lower middle class households like Thomas’s employed servants (her employer in 1871 was a banker’s clerk), so it’s not inconceivable that she could have been working for someone he knew from the colliery.  They had a total of thirteen children (according to the 1911 census), the ones whose names we know were:

  • George William (b. c. February 1877, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. 5 July 1915, Derby, Derbyshire)
  • Thomas (b. 28 June 1878, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. c. November 1944, Heanor, Derbyshire)
  • John James (b. c. February 1882, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. 6 December 1957, Leamoor Avenue, Alfreton, Derbyshire)
  • Lucy Ann (b. c. November 1883, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. c. February 1950, Nottinghamshire)
  • Emma Jane (b. c. May 1888, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. c. November 1971, Chesterfield, Derbyshire)
  • Ernest Edward (b. c. February 1892, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. 27 November 1892, Alfreton, Derbyshire)
  • Edwin (b. 8 November 1893, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. 26 September 1916, Ovillers, Somme, Picardie)
  • Lottie (b. 20 March 1895, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. c. November 1987, Selby, Yorkshire)
  • Nellie (b. 12 November 1896, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. c. November 1976, Derby, Derbyshire)
  • Amy (b. c. February 1899, Alfreton, Derbyshire – d. c. November 1966, Derby, Derbyshire)

Unfortunately Thomas’s plodding ascent up the social ladder was to be halted abruptly in 1889. That year he was dismissed along with two other clerks from his job at Swanwick Colliery by the owner Charles Rowland Palmer-Morewood after they gave evidence in an action against the colliery manager Frederick George Pogmore (The Derbyshire Times, 27 November 1889), who had been accused of seducing the seventeen year old daughter of another colliery manager, Thomas Severn (The Derbyshire Times, 21 August 1889). The incident provoked a strong reaction by the Radicals, who cited it as an example of the Conservatives’ contempt for the working man (Morewood was a member of the latter party), however the Conservative candidate for mid-Derbyshire, John Satterfield Sandars, used a Conservative meeting at Alfreton to condemn Palmer-Morewood’s action and express his sympathy with the men (The Derbyshire Times, 27 November 1889, p. 2, col. 4). We know Thomas was in attendance as at the end of Sandars’s speech he proposed a vote of thanks to Mr. Sandars and thanked the Conservative Party for “the practical help and sympathy which had been shown to his fellows and himself.”

In the report Thomas was named as the secretary of the Alfreton Conservative Association. A few years earlier he had also apparently served as the Alfreton delegate for the Nottingham Imperial Order of Oddfellows (Nottingham Evening Post, 13 July 1886, p. 4, col. 5), a friendly society with a Masonic-style lodge structure. Both positions suggest an increasing interest in local affairs and a growing public profile. By 1891, when the family were living at 28 Park Street, he had found a new job as a bookkeeper for the Wingfield Manor Colliery Company, and from this point on his name begins to appear more frequently in local news stories. For example, according to the Derby Mercury there was a bizarre incident at his office at Highfield Cottage on 26 June that year when a man who lived above them was charged with deliberately damaging the company’s books. Thomas was quoted as a witness, saying that the man had entered the offices clearly drunk and ordered him and an assistant to leave, threatening to chuck them out if they did not. Thomas put the books away in a cupboard before leaving, and then the man proceeded to destroy or damage a large quantity of said books (The Derby Mercury, 29 July 1891, p. 3, col. 3).

News cutting
‘Damaging books,’ The Derby Mercury, 29 July 1891, p. 3, col. 3 (via The British Newspaper Archive).

A year later the Manor Colliery Company went into liquidation but Thomas and several other ex-employees successfully recovered £90 in owed wages from the owner John Brocklehurst (The Derbyshire Times, 23 January 1892, p. 8, col. 5). Later in the year Thomas is reported as giving “corroborative evidence” in the case of the Manor Colliery Co., Alfreton (In Liquidation) v. W.B. Hodgson, which involved another claim of unpaid wages against his former employer (The Derbyshire Times, 16 July 1892, p. 4, col. 8). After these debacles Thomas left the mining industry altogether and got a job as a clerk, and later manager at Kempson and Co. of Pye Bridge, a company producing sulphuric acid, coal derivatives and tar distilleries. Not glamorous perhaps, but a world away from what his brothers would have been exposed to down the mines. His wife’s epitaph states that the family lived somewhere called ‘Tynefield House’ in Pye Bridge in 1913, and the fact that their house had a name (and one worth mentioning on a gravestone) rather than simply a number suggests they were living in rather more spacious accommodation than they had done at Park Street (the 1911 census describes it as having eight rooms). Thomas’s importance within the company can be attested by the fact that he is listed as the company secretary in both a public notice in The Derbyshire Times (30 October 1897) and the 1912 edition of Kelly’s Directory.

This same directory also mentions that Thomas was a local councillor for the Somercotes and Riddings Ward of Alfreton Urban District Council. His interest in politics can be traced at least as far back as his work as secretary for the Alfreton Conservative Association, and in 1895 he had been appointed as a scrutineer in the sixth ballot of the Alfreton Building Society (The Derbyshire Times, 6 November 1895). This same public spiritedness can be detected again in 1901 when he had served as the census enumerator for his home district of Alfreton. Rather pleasingly, this means he would have met a large number of my Alfreton ancestors during census week as he trudged from door to door handing out the blank forms and collecting them a few days later.

gypsy_mary_evans_copyright_small_450
Census enumerator at a gypsy camp (via History.org).

Thomas had first been elected councillor on 29 May 1906 following the retirement of his predecessor Mr. F. Bonsall of the Midland Miners’ Permanent Relief Society (Nottingham Evening Post, 16 May 1906), and stood successfully again in 1909, 1912 and 1915. During this time he served as superintendent examiner for Somercotes Technical Education Committee (The Derbyshire Times, 15 February 1911, p. 6, col. 6), presided over a number of meetings coordinating Alfreton’s contribution to the war effort (Derbyshire Courier, 22 August 1914, p. 3, col. 6, Derbyshire Courier, 17 April 1915, p. 3, col. 7) and was promoted to Chairman of the Alfreton Urban District council, a position which carried with it a magistracy. In his later years Thomas also became increasingly involved in both his local Masonic lodge, into which he had been initiated on 21 April 1908, and the Baptist church at Swanwick where he and Mary Ann had married in 1876. Some of his activities reported in the local press include opening a fundraising bazaar for the church on Easter Tuesday 1911 (Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald, 22 April 1911, p. 7, col. 8) and opening a new Sunday School there the following year (The Derbyshire Courier, 6 January 1912, cols. 3-5). According to his obituary he also ran a bible class and was a deacon at Riddings. The photograph below shows him with with his fellow deacons when he would have been around sixty years old.

Deacons of Riddings Baptist Church
Deacons of Riddings Baptist Church c. 1910. Thomas England is stood on the far left (via Picture the Past).

Thomas’s final years were marred by a series of personal tragedies. In 1913 his wife Mary Ann passed away at the age of fifty eight. Her epitaph reads “rest comes at length,” from the hymn ‘Hark, Hark, My Soul.’ Her death was followed by those of their sons George in 1915 and Edwin in 1916, and after a long illness Thomas himself died on 21 February 1918 aged sixty seven. His obituary described him as “a man of many parts [who] was thorough in all he did,” and a “very popular member” of the council with “a large circle of friends.” His funeral took place at Swanwick Baptist Church three days later, where he was laid to rest in the same plot as his wife. Although on the surface his life can seem like Victorian self-improvement fantasy (the working class lad who overcame various hardships through faith and perseverance), to me Thomas seems like a more complex character than this would suggest. Although possessed of a strong work-ethic (or perhaps just restlessness) he seems to have been genuinely motivated by a desire to do good for his community. Perhaps his memories of that cramped house on Sleet Moor, and of another life underground which he’d so narrowly avoided, had something to do with that.

Thomas England's grave
Thomas and Mary Ann’s headstone, Swanwick, 4 November 2011. The full epitaph reads: “In loving memory of Mary Ann, beloved wife of Thomas England of Tynefield House, Pye Bridge. Died January 11th 1913 aged 59 years. Rest comes at length. Also, the above Thomas England. Died February 21st 1918 aged 67 years.”

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A brief note on how I discovered the site of Thomas’s grave. When I first began looking into my family history in 2010 neither the 1911 census nor the British Newspaper Archive were available, so my knowledge of Thomas’s life was initially limited to what I could glean from the censuses of 1851-1901. I could find no record of his marriage or burial in the local parish registers but didn’t realise till much later that this would have been because of his Baptist faith. The key piece of information which led to the discovery of everything else was the brief reference to his role as councillor for Riddings and Somercotes ward in the 1912 edition of Kelly’s Directory. The news that he’d worked as a local councillor convinced me he must have had an obituary in the local newspaper, and this quickly obtained via the Derbyshire Record Office. In it was the first mention I’d seen of his involvement with Riddings Baptist Church, and from there I was able to identify him as the man in this photo from the excellent Picture the Past website. Later that day, a bit more research led me to the site in Riddings where the Church had once stood (now a car park, but the wall the men in the photo are standing in front of is still there), and while in the area I thought it might be worth a quick look around the Baptist churchyard at nearby Swanwick, just in case. His and Mary Ann’s marble headstone was one of the largest and best situated there, standing in an unmistakably prestigious plot in front of the church. Even more surprising was the presence of a third commemoration on the stone’s left hand side which simply read “Also Edwin their son, killed in action, September 26th 1916 aged 22 years.” His story and that of his brothers and sisters, including Frederick’s father Thomas England Jr., will be told in the next post.

Thomas England Obituary Picture
Thomas England, 1850-1918. Source: The Derbyshire Courier, 4 February 1911, p. 9, col. 4 (via The British Newspaper Archive).