Victorian London in Photographs: Sherbert sellers, sewing schools and Shoe Lane Bridge

Victorian London in Photographs: a free exhibition at the London Metropolitan Archives (5 May-8 Oct 2015)

If you’re visiting the LMA to carry out research, or you find yourself in the Farringdon area with half an hour to spare, then take a look at the Victorian London in Photographs exhibition on the first floor.

Sherbert Seller, (c) Greenwich Heritage Centre

It’s a wide-ranging topic for a small gallery space, but this carefully curated selection gives a glimpse of how photography was used by Victorians to record life in London: its architecture, streetscapes and residents. Here are just three of the selections you have in store.

Sherbert sellers and street musicians: on your way up the staircase there’s a series of street vendor photos taken between 1884 and 1887 around Greenwich. They were commissioned by Charles Spurgeon who had recently taken over the South Street Baptist Chapel; he planned to use them as lantern slides, presumably as the basis for a lecture or two. Together they convey the breadth of goods and trades once hawked around the streets. In one (above), a sherbert seller quenches the thirst of a shoeless boy who appears in several of the photos – one hopes he was given a few pennies and the odd sherbert as he accompanied the photographer on his rounds. Other images depict a celery salesman, street musicians, a ‘try your weight’ machine, and two youths selling crockery from a cart outside the London & Naval Hotel (“White Bait and Fish Dinners, Hot Joints and Poultry” proclaims the hotel signage, “Try Our Shrimps in the Garden. 9d.”)

George Jennings Collis Writing Family History

George Jennings Collis: arriving at the North Bridge Inn (1870)

It’s not always a good idea to start family stories at the beginning; it can often be more intriguing to start elsewhere. Having said that, a life story told in weekly blog instalments has scope to get a little confusing if it doesn’t follow some kind of chronological order. So, at least for the time being, let’s follow convention and begin at the beginning, on a winter’s day on the cusp of 1870-1. In a room over the North Bridge Inn, Emmeline Collis is in labour.

North Bridge Inn

The North Bridge Inn stands in Frog Island, beside a lock-gate on the Leicester Navigation. Horses clip clop their way along the towpath, pulling barges laden with coal on their journey between Loughborough and Leicester. And on the road outside, carts and pedestrians arch over the canal bridge as they head into town.

In December 1870, licensed victualler John George Collis – always known as George – and his wife Emmeline have lived here for only a month; 1870 has been a busy year for them: in July they’re running the Sir Thomas White pub in Russell Street, by October they’ve moved to the Red Lion on Highcross Street, and then finally in November they swap licences with John Cooper for the North Bridge Inn. Such energetic hopping around – finishing at Frog Island – is reported in a series of newspaper clippings, ending with this one from the Leicester Chronicle and Leicestershire Mercury on 19 November 1870:

John Geo Collis takes on licence of North Bridge Inn

George Jennings Collis Writing Family History

George Jennings Collis: a life story in instalments

In late Victorian Leicester, you’d generally find my Collis ancestors pulling a pint or working in wood, earning a living as either publicans or engineers’ pattern makers. So I was surprised to find George Jennings Collis listed as a “Clerk in Holy Orders, of Evenwood Vicarage, Bishop Auckland in the County of Durham” in his father’s prob1892 George Jennings Collis graduates from Clare College, croppedate records. He was an exception to the rule, it seems, and worth a closer look.

Over recent months I’ve been piecing together cousin George’s story, with support from local historians in County Durham and some resourceful searching. To tell the full story all at once would be a bit of a marathon – and far too long for a single blog post – so instead I’ll be sharing it in weekly instalments.

Publishing in instalments was a technique favoured by Dickens, as this British Library piece explains. I don’t pretend to share Dickens’ literary flair, or have the dramatic plot and remarkable characters of David Copperfield or Hard Times, but I’m nevertheless keen to experiment and see how it works for family history writing.

At this stage, I’m not sure how many blog posts his story will need; I can see the horizon, so to speak, but I’m not quite sure how I’ll get there. In any event, it isn’t a sprint and let’s hope we enjoy the journey along the way, week by week. To whet your appetite – and introduce George – I’ve started with this rather splendid photo of him graduating from Clare College, Cambridge in 1892.

As we progress, I’ll add in links below to other blog posts in the series to make it easier for you to hop around from one instalment to the next.

Arriving at the North Bridge Inn (1870)

Counting noses and the whiff of bleach (1871)

Foul floods and four lost brothers (1870s)

Servitors and soxing at Ardingly (1881)

A summer of cricket with Wyggeston Boys (1889)

Going up to Cambridge (1889-92)

From Boston schoolmaster to Berwick curate (1894-97)

Coastal walks and the curate’s egg at Embleton (1897-1905)

Farewell to Morpeth (1908)

An Evenwood crusader (1908-1918)

Writing Family History

Reflections: Getting Started with Alan Bennett

Alan Bennett Writing Home

 “All I can say about biography, autobiography or indeed fiction is: don’t start at the beginning. Write about the period that interests you, then go back – gradually pick up the rest.”




These wise words come from someone who knows a thing or two about life writing: Alan Bennett – playwright, memoir writer and all round good egg.

Getting started with writing your family history can be a daunting prospect. If you set out  to write up all of your research, the chances are you’ll soon be inundated with relatives; each time you go back another generation there’s twice the number of direct ancestors to grapple with, and that’s before you take account of all those siblings. There’s potential for being overwhelmed with information. It can stifle, rather than stimulate your writing.

In tune with Alan Bennett’s advice, we suggest you start by writing about one period or person that particularly interests you. Set aside for the time being the idea of writing a full end-to-end family history. Don’t worry that you’re not starting at the beginning. Instead, just focus on one person and immerse yourself in the stories of their life. You might start by writing about one aspect – for example, a brief ‘glimpse’ based around a family photo or an heirloom. Keep it short and sweet, aim for a few paragraphs or about 200 words a piece. Then you might have a go at writing a slightly longer piece about their working life – an occupational history along the lines of our Trading Stories, Working Lives series.

Setting yourself mini projects such as these imposes boundaries – it restricts and focuses what you need to research and write about, and can result in richer, more creative work. It’s also less daunting – to write, and to read. So, when you next have a few spare hours, give it a go, and see where it takes you.

Trading Stories, Working Lives

Trading Stories, Working Lives: Gardening with the Harrisons

Study an 1828 map of Leicester and you might just spot Harrison’s Nursery; it’s out on a limb, some distance along Belgrave Gate. The cartographer has freckled it with trees. A brook wiggles its way along the northern edge and a small building stands on the main road. I set out to discover whether there’s a link between this nursery and the Harrison gardeners in my family tree.
Harrisons Nursery off Belgrave Gate, 1828
It’s a research journey that requires some resourcefulness – hopping between freemen’s records, a biography or two, trade directories and a clutch of books on gardening in Georgian times. Along the way there was a moment of joy unearthing a skinny booklet in the archives – ‘Harrison & Sons Bicentenary, 1764-1964’ – which opens with a rather romanticised tale about the beginnings of the firm:
“Somewhere around the year 1760… John Harrison rode off to market on his father’s horse, lost everything he had, horse and all, in a disastrous gambling bout, and decamped to join George III’s Navy, at that time at war with the French. By 1764, peace had been signed, sailor John had saved enough himself to buy himself out so he returned to Leicester to set up shop in East Bond Street as a nurseryman, greengrocer etc.”

From these early shoots Harrison’s nursery flourished for over two hundred years – at the Belgrave Gate location and beyond – and I was chuffed to see that it did indeed link in with my own family tree. Take a look here at the story of three generations of gardeners, nurserymen and seed merchants: Harrisons the nurserymen.

It’s the latest in our series of ‘Trading Stories, Working Lives’ occupational histories. To see others in the series:…/trading-stories-working-lives

Harrison's seed warehouse

Book Club

Book Club: The Hare with Amber Eyes

“One sunny day I set out to find Charles. Rue de Monceau is a long Parisian street that charges off towards the boulevard Pereire. It is a hill of golden-stone houses…” and with this, Edmund de Waal heads out in the footsteps of relative Charles Ephrussi, a wealthy Jewish banker, aesthete and collector. The result is this riveting family history, The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance.

In a beautifully written narrative, he reveals how Charles’ collection of 264 netsuke – delicately-carved wooden and ivory Japanese belt fastenings – passed through several generations of the Ephrussi family, from Belle Epoque Paris to war-torn Vienna, and then – thanks to a loyal maid – to Japan and now London. In pursuing the netsuke, Edmund de Waal evokes a picture of each branch of the family in turn; he has an affluent and colourful family to work with, but this is not a glitzy society history, more a considered study of the Ephrussi family in context. His research shines through, without weighing down the storyline.



Heirlooms Writing Family History

Martin Collis’ tool chest

Martin Collis toolchest collage

Lift the lid of the heavy tool chest and peer into the working life of Martin Collis. As an engineer’s pattern maker at a Leicester iron foundry, he fashions mahogany into models, ready for sand casting with molten metal. This is precise work, a task of fine tolerances and exacting standards: “measure twice, cut once”.

By scrimping his weekly wages, Martin populates the wooden chest with tools: dovetail and rip saws are inset into the lid, chisels, gouges and planes sit in the pull-out trays, with set squares and sharpening stones in the space below. As he hones his craft, his tools develop a familiar grasp – the turn of the gouge, the bite of the saw, the sweep of the plane.

He uses an odontograph to space the teeth on a gearwheel, juggling the geometry and jotting down his calculations in a battered notebook. He learns where to place the sprue and riser channels, so that the molten iron, bronze or aluminium flows freely. He develops an intuitive feel for shrinkage rates and machining allowances.

In the foundry they make a name stamp – and he wallops ‘M COLLIS’ into each boxwood handle. He’s in the pattern-making trade to stay.


Take a look at other examples of ‘Heirloom’ articles and suggestions for writing one yourself.