In the News Writing Family History

In the news: the Opera Hotel is auctioned (1893)

A story inspired by an 1893 newspaper clipping

Opera Hotel up for auction, Leicester Chronicle and Leics Mercury, 7 Oct 1893 ref BL_0000173_18931007_002_0001Mr Tarratt steps up to the lectern, the hum in the auction mart subsides, and on the strike of seven o’clock the business commences. Martin Collis stands at the back, surveying the crowd; it’s a full house tonight at the Market Street auction rooms.

On his way here, this mild October evening, Martin detoured to take one last look at the Opera Hotel in Town Hall Lane. Nestling in the shadow of St Martin’s Church, it’s just the kind of opportunity that he’s seeking. He leafs through the sales particulars:

“…two entrances on front, well-lighted and spacious vaults, smoke-room, bar, tap-room, with cooking range; excellent billiard-room, bagatelle-room, large sitting room, three bed-rooms, stock-room, small yard with opening for barrels; wash-house and coal-place, kitchen, and three splendid brick arched cellars”

The auction room buzz reminds him of some three years earlier – he’d been selling their first pub, the Fox and Hounds on Humberstone Road. He still has the Chronicle clipping: “The lot was started at £2,000 and, after a spirited bidding, was knocked down for £4,690.” Good times. Now – after brief stints at the Royal Oak and Cross Keys Inn – he’s looking for a new venture. The Opera Hotel fits the bill.

“Gentlemen, who will start me at £3,000?” And so the bidding bats around the room. There are many speculators, but Martin is an experienced hand; he nods discreetly and keeps his nerve. “Going once, going twice… sold to Mr Collis.” The gavel whacks down and Martin breaks into a smile. He’s the new owner of the Opera Hotel.

GuildhallLane-aerial copy

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

Readers' Stories

Readers’ stories: Searching for Uncle Reg

Thank you to John Wills for sharing the story of his family history quest…

As a small boy my father told me of family members who had emigrated to America and Canada; indeed, letters and postcards would arrive periodically from across the Atlantic, causing great excitement. My father also hinted that we had cousins in Australia, but then later denied this. Was there was a skeleton in the cupboard, I wondered? I resolved to investigate.

During a Google search for my paternal grandfather’s name, my grandmother Florence appeared on a family tree of her maiden name. Nothing out of the ordinary there, I thought, but to my astonishment this tree claimed that she had been married to another man before my grandfather and had had a son born in 1909. I rather indignantly contacted the site’s owner and told him that this wasn’t the case. An explosion of e-mails from Australia and America followed, revealing the hidden story of my grandmother’s early years.

With help from my Australian correspondent, I pieced together the story. In rural Somerset in late 1908, Florence conceived a baby out of wedlock. The father – whose identity we shall never know – refused to marry her. Some two years later, Florence married my grandfather and my father was their firstborn in 1912. He remembers playing with a little boy three years his senior – cousin Reg, he was told.

Despite marrying Florence, my grandfather apparently would not accept his stepson into his new and growing family. Young Reg – after time in the care of his maternal grandfather, was handed over to the local Dr Barnardo’s Home at the age of 11. It was the end of our family links with him, until now.

Uncle Reg c1923“Life in the home was not a happy experience,” writes Reg’s son “and all through his life the memories of it were with him. There seemed to be a lot he never spoke about.” In 1923 Reg – along with eighteen other boys aged 12-16, was sent to Australia; such enforced emigration is shocking by today’s standards, but as the Barnardo’s website reports, child migration “was born from the idea of offering children an opportunity of a new start in life, in a new country. This was a widely accepted policy at the time, and was supported by both British and overseas governments.” And so Reg sails on the SS Largs Bay, arriving in Sydney on 2nd April 1923 to start a new life in Australia.

My father would have been oblivious to these events. He didn’t discover Reg was in fact his half brother, rather than his cousin, until just before he died and he and Reg never made contact. Oddly enough they died within months of one another in 1992.

I, however, am now in regular contact with Reg’s son, my first cousin in Australia. He has shared his fascinating discoveries about my grandmother’s family and in turn I have been able to supply him with information and photos of the woman he never knew. Most recently, I’ve sent him a more tangible link to his UK family: a silver badge engraved ‘HMS Pembroke, January 1919’ that belonged to our mutual great uncle Herbert. But that, as they say, is another story.

Book Club

Book Club: Common People

As its title suggests, Common People: The History of An English Family is the story of everyday folk. We don’t meet any kings of industry or aristocrats here; instead, author Alison Light introduces us to needle makers in Alcester, builders and Baptist preachers in Portsmouth, and sailors setting sail to Newfoundland. These are lives that at first sight might seem unremarkable, yet Light uses her creative touch to ensure they merit a closer look. She is working with the kind of family history material that most of us discover in our tree –  yet she nimbly interprets the family storylines,  enriches the narrative with local and social history, and reflects upon her role as the family historian along the way.

The book falls into four extended chapters, each one based around a grandparent and their ancestry. Thus, we hop around the country following Light’s quest for documentary records and other family traces. We spend time with grandmother Evelyn Whitlock in the Women’s Forage Corps, get locked inside the Netherne Asylum with Sarah Hill, and head out to sea with ‘Captains’ Giles and John Hosier. It’s ambitious in its scope – spanning five or six generations on all sides – but it’s skillfully handled, a sign of Light’s talent as an ‘historian of forgotten people’.

Every now and then, she steps aside from the storyline to reflect upon the joys and challenges of being a family historian:

“Family history, like all historical work, is messy and loose-ended, full of false starts, red herrings and wild goose chases, discoveries which are sheer serendipity and might so easily have been missed. Far from being dead ends or time wasters, these detours are part of historical work. They reveal our misconceptions and dislodge our assumptions about the past.”

George Jennings Collis Writing Family History

George Jennings Collis: foul floods and four lost brothers (1870s)

“Leicester had a child mortality rate which was twice the national average and on a par with London, Manchester and Liverpool”, explains Ned Hewitt in his excellent book ‘The Slums of Leicester’. Each summer, an annual epidemic of diarrhoea killed many of the elderly and very young. “By 1871 this yearly scourge  was killing one in four Leicester children before their first birthday.”

Statistics can often feel rather dry; put them in the context of a particular family, however, and they become more meaningful. George Jennings Collis was one of ten children, four of whom died in infancy. It’s a reality that’s unimaginable by today’s standards, but in 1870s Leicester it was the norm.

Infant mortality in Collis family

Ned Hewitt continues, “The cause of this annual [diarrhoea] epidemic was hotly debated. Summer heat, gas from the sewers and lack of ‘mothercraft’ on the part of women working in factories were all blamed. However, the real reason was the town’s inadequate sewers and the resultant insanitary conditions.”

To be exactly sure of the cause of the Collis boys’ deaths would require ordering four death certificates – an expensive business – and so at this stage I’m surmising that the lack of clean water and poor sanitation were contributory factors, if not directly the cause of their death; the Collis family home at the North Bridge Inn was sandwiched between the River Soar and the Leicester Canal, in the thick of it. What is clear is how precarious life was when George Jennings Collis was an infant in the 1870s. He was lucky to survive, with four brothers dying either side of him.

Publishing Family History

Create your own set of family history cards

We’re delighted with our new set of cards that arrived recently from Moo.


The Moo website allows you to upload up to 50 different images for business cards (or 10 different images for postcards). Add some text on the reverse using one of their templates, and Bob’s your uncle – you have a set of family history cards that you can hand out at family gatherings, use as a prompt for storytelling, or simply prop up on your mantlepiece.

The printing quality is pukka, and you can choose between rounded or square corners, and several different finishes (matt, gloss, eco-friendly). Here’s a handful of our cards; it’s almost like a portable family history album, supplied in a pocket-sized box.


Why not create something similar with your own family history photos, and let us know how you use them?

Census Writing Family History

Census: Martin Collis at the Spinney Hill Tavern (1871)

As Martin Collis lays in the back bedroom – shared with older brother Henry – he can hear the chatter from the tap-room below. The Spinney Hill Tavern is lively this Friday night with wage packet drinkers.Spinney Hill Tavern

The pub sits on the eastern side of Upper Kent Street, sandwiched between Garendon and Berners Streets. Stand on the front step and the view slopes away towards the railway goods sheds and workhouse. Martin climbs this hill every evening, weary after labouring as a pattern maker’s apprentice.

These solidly built, red-brick terraces are home to hosiers and mantle makers, clerks and railway porters. Martin is on nodding terms with builder Reuben Beaver at No 12. And next door neighbour Henry Shipley – a chair maker – comes in for a pint most evenings. A couple of doors along, the Rev Thomas Kent preaches with fire-and-brimstone zeal against the evils of alcohol.

Life hasn’t been the same since his mother died six months ago; they’re slowly adjusting to life without her. His sister Mary Ann now manages the domestic arrangements, and they’ve taken on a servant – Thomas James – to help in the bar. Yesterday, as he returned from work, he spotted his father George in the front bedroom, surveying the sunset to the tick-tock of the oak case clock.

1871 George and Martin Collis at Spinney Hill Tavern LEIRG10_3268_3271-0478

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

Trading Stories, Working Lives

Trading Stories, Working Lives: the Polkey boatmen of Loughborough

As you stroll along the canal towpaths near Loughborough, inquisitive dogs poke their noses out from barge doorways. Wood smoke tangs the air. And pleasure boats sit, patiently waiting for a fair-weather jaunt.

Loughborough Wharf

It’s hard to imagine this peaceful backwater was once a busy thoroughfare, a channel for trade from the 1790s. Where modern apartment blocks now cluster around Loughborough Wharf, barge horses clip-clopped their way, transporting coal to Leicester and Nottingham. It was here that the Polkey family worked as boatmen. But how did it come about?

In the latest article in our Trading Stories, Working Lives series we look at life as a boatman on the Loughborough Navigation. The article brings together research from social and industrial history, coupled with family records, to provide a glimpse of the close-knit, waterside community living on Canal Bank, Bridge Street and Rushes.

Take a journey through sixty years and three generations of Loughborough boatmen: click to download.

Boatmen on a coal barge

“The banks of the Soar in the vicinity of this town already wear the appearance of increasing commerce. Speculations are increasing, Wharfs are preparing, and manufactories are erecting to welcome the approach of our expected Navigation.” (Leicester Herald, 1792)

Click here to see other articles in the series of Trading Stories, Working Lives occupational histories.

Writing Family History

Reflections: Putting pen to paper with Family Tree magazine

Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 14.44.55“We put a lot of time, effort and dedication into researching our family history, compiling our tree and filling box files and digital folders with page after page of records. We even get pretty good at relating the tales we’ve uncovered to any willing listener. But when it comes to writing up the story, then it often seems as though we’re not quite ready…”

With these welcoming words Helen Tovey, the editor of Family Tree magazine sets the scene for an article in the July 2015 issue written by Graham Barker of Auntie Mabel. As Graham explains, “In the article I suggest four starting points. The aim is not to write an end-to-end family history, but instead to create a series of vignettes or ‘glimpses’ into your ancestors’ lives.”

Each of the suggested writing activities uses one family history resource – a portrait, census return, heirloom or newspaper snippet – as the stimulus. The idea is to start simply, aiming to craft a few paragraphs of text. The case studies included in the article all revolve around one ancestor – Martin Collis of Leicester; they’re standalone pieces, but it’s not difficult to see how a series of such ‘glimpses’ could snowball into a fuller biography.

Graham’s really rather chuffed to see his article in print – thanks for your support, Helen, Karen and the team at Family Tree.

Snapshot Writing Family History

Snapshot: Outside the Admiral Nelson (1911)

Admiral Nelson 1911It’s spring 1911 and five year-old Edna Collis wears a straw hat and an inquisitive stare. She stands with her grandparents, Martin and Elizabeth Collis in the doorway of their pub, a few footsteps from Leicester’s central Clock Tower.

Business at the Admiral Nelson is prospering and they’re all in their Sunday best – Martin in a bowler hat, wing collar and smart overcoat; Elizabeth in her decorated black bonnet, with an ostentatious fur. After a tearful tantrum, their youngest granddaughter Mabel finally stands still for the photographer, bribed with the treat of holding her grandmother’s fur muffler.

The window billboards reveal that ‘Milly’s Mother’ and ‘When Knights Were Bold’ are playing at the Opera House, and ‘Olga’s Oath’ at the Pavilion Theatre. Two circular Dewar’s Whisky signs over the door are the only sniff of alcohol, yet this stretch of Humberstone Gate is packed with pubs and inns –the Plough, Craven Arms Hotel, Bell Hotel, and Stag and Pheasant are a few footsteps away. On weekdays the pavements here are crowded with pedestrians and every now and then an electric crimson-and-cream tram rattles by, heading out along the Humberstone Road.

Humberstone Gate postcard

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

George Jennings Collis Writing Family History

George Jennings Collis: counting noses and the whiff of bleach (1871)

We’ve all done it; in the excitement of pursuing an ancestor we gallop through the census returns, from one decade to the next, without giving them more than a cursory look. Yet census returns can tell us so much – they represent a dovetailing of person, time and place. Use them along with old maps, trade directories and local history resources and you can soon develop a clearer sense of life on your ancestors’ streets.

It’s late March 1871 and the Census enumerator pays a visit to the North Bridge Inn. He’s dropping off a form for the householder to complete; as the Leicester Chronicle describes it, “The nation is about the ‘count noses'”.

1871 Census in the Leicester Chronicle

The schedule requires John George Collis to write down details of all of the people staying under his roof on the night of Sunday 2nd April, including any visitors and servants. “Each enumerator will have about 200 houses on his list,” explains the newspaper report, “and he will be required to fill up the schedule himself in case there is no member of a family able to write. The census papers will all be collected on Monday, April 3, their contents copied into books, and the results calculated, upon which the Registrar-General will compile his aggregate return.” It’s a colossal undertaking, spanning the entire country.