Grave Encounters (1): welcome to Welford Road Cemetery

(photo: Friends of Welford Road Cemetery)

Welford Road Cemetery in Leicester plays a pivotal role in my family history; at the last count, more than 80 members of my extended family have been buried here. Since the cemetery opened in 1849, my relatives will no doubt have visited many times. And one rather dramatically ended his life at the cemetery. Through a series of blog posts let me take you on a walk about, stopping off at some family graves and tuning in to the history of the cemetery as we progress.

Let’s begin at the main gates on Welford Road. As you head along the driveway, the traffic noise subsides and you’re soon in a different world, surrounded by greenery, birdsong and impressive monuments. Like many early Victorian cemeteries, the landscaping of Welford Road Cemetery was inspired by the ‘garden cemetery’ movement which espoused that burial grounds should be designed not only for the dignified repose of the dead but also for the pleasure of the living. Visiting your dearly-departed on a Sunday afternoon, they argued, should also bring with it the chance to enjoy a beautiful setting.

To the right of the main entrance the visitors’ centre – opened in 2006 as a base for the Friends of Welford Road Cemetery – is a good starting point for those keen to track down their ancestors buried in the cemetery.

But today, on this walk, we nip immediately behind the centre. Tucked round the back, on a sloping embankment, there are serried ranks of slate headstones. At first glance, it’s an odd place for graves to be positioned, with lawn falling away so steeply. A closer look at the inscriptions also indicates something is amiss – virtually all of years mentioned on the stones pre-date the 1849 opening of the cemetery. How can this be?

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Trading Stories, Working Lives: Frederick Major, building contractor in Victorian Leicester

Graham Barker tracks down three Leicester landmarks constructed by his relative, Victorian building contractor Frederick Major

“He was a very active man, and always endeavoured as far as possible to walk wherever he wanted to go. In particular he objected to riding in tramcars. He also had an excellent memory, and could have written an extensive history of the city in the last century.” This extract from Frederick Major’s 1924 obituary captures something of his character – still sprightly and sparky, even at the age of 92 years old.

It’s disappointing that we will never read the history of Victorian Leicester that my relative Frederick Major could have written, woven with memories gathered over his long life working as a building contractor and town councillor. In the absence of his memoirs, how can I get a clearer picture of him? Do any of his buildings survive today, I wonder?

Read on, or download the full story here: Frederick Major, building contractor in Victorian Leicester

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Heirlooms: a patternmaker’s tool chest

A sturdy black patternmaker’s tool chest sits in the corner of my living room. It’s probably the largest heirloom that has made its way to me. Day to day, it doesn’t get any use – I’m not too handy in woodworking – yet I still get great pleasure from being its custodian. The tool chest embodies much about my Collis ancestors, many of whom worked as engineers’ patternmakers. Open up the lid and stories begin to emerge.

The tool chest, or many of the tools at least, originally belonged to my great great grandfather, Martin Collis (1853-1912); most of the chisels and planes inside are stamped ‘M COLLIS’. But it was his son – Martin Shipley Collis (1882-1951) – who probably made most use of it, working in the pattern shop at engineers AA Jones & Shipman and later as a self-employed patternmaker in partnership as Shipley & Collis. More of which shortly.

As a child, I remember the tool chest sitting in our garage – under cover and apparently under-used, even though my own father was a carpenter and joiner. A carpenter has need of hammers, screwdrivers and saws to make staircases, kitchens and cabinets. But inside a patternmaker’s chest you’ll find a very large number of specialised tools, particularly chisels and planes needed to shape and hone wooden models (or patterns) ready for casting in a foundry. So most of the tools in the chest – such as the spoon chisels shown above – have probably not been used since the 1920s.

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Heirlooms: getting started

In recent days of self-isolation, with more time than ever spent at home, I’ve found myself reflecting upon what might broadly be called heirlooms – objects around the house that were once owned, or created, by an ancestor that have somehow worked their way into my possession. None of these objects is intrinsically valuable, yet each carries with it a story from the past.

Inspired by The Pulse Glass – a book by Gillian Tindall that was serialised recently on Radio 4 – I’ve decided to take a closer look at heirlooms in a series of blog posts over the coming weeks. “Most of the objects that surround us, no matter how important in their time, will eventually be lost and forgotten,” writes Tindall, “But a select few, for reasons of sentiment and chance, conservation and simple inaction, escape destruction and gain new meanings.”

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Trading Stories, Working Lives: Jesse Barker, hand-frame knitter and celery grower of Loughborough

Graham Barker unearths some newspaper snippets on his ancestor Jesse Barker –  hand-frame knitter and celery grower of Loughborough – in his latest Trading Stories, Working Lives article

Inside a marquee tucked behind the Peacock Inn, Jesse Barker is celebrating winning first prize in the Loughborough Celery Show. It’s a hard-won victory; his seventh attempt at the top prize. In earlier years he’d won a succession of all-comers’ prizes: half a dozen knives and forks, a tin coffee pot, a garden fork, a pepper pot. But now, on a Saturday afternoon in September 1869, he’s finally able to hold aloft the winner’s trophy – a copper kettle – to respectful applause from his fellow gardeners and cheers from his grandchildren.

As the Leicester Daily Mail describes, “There were twenty-one entries, and the exhibition was considered superior to any of the previous ones. The members and friends finished the day by taking supper together, and… were much enlivened by the musical strains of a harp and concertina, with some excellent singing by Mr Biddles.” Jesse was a touch tipsy when he left the Peacock that night, heading around the corner to his home on King Street.

Download the full story here: Jesse Barker, hand-frame knitter and celery grower of Loughborough

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Trading Stories, Working Lives: Edward Collis, a Victorian cabinet maker, upholsterer and furniture broker

In his latest Trading Stories, Working Lives article, Graham Barker takes a closer look at how his relative Edward Collis earned a living as a cabinet marker, upholster and furniture broker in Victorian Leicester

There’s a tantalising glimpse of Edward Collis’ Church Gate premises in this photo taken around 1878-84. Alas, the Central Cabinet & Upholstery Furnishing Establishment was not Edward’s showroom – his was more modest, a door or two down Church Gate – but this corner appears to have been a furniture-buying hotspot, in the shadow of the Clock Tower. By 1885, the corner building had been replaced by the East Gates Coffee House, which stills stands there today.

An advert in 1870 presents Edward as running a steady, respectable business, sustained by “the kind and liberal support bestowed upon him during the past 17 years.” When the Church Gate premises are auctioned in 1874 – for the third time during his tenancy – it is time to move. Edward relocates to 9 Belgrave Gate but it proves to be only a short-term measure; two years later, he “is retiring from the Cabinet Manufacturing Department of his business, and in consequence of the premises being sold to the Leicester Tramways Company,” he not only auctions off his supplies of “superior Mahogany, Oak, and Walnut veneers” but also takes the opportunity to prune his stock of “massive oak and Spanish mahogany suites in costly Utrecht velvets, morocco and real leather… marqueterie and buhl cabinets… Arabian and French bedsteads…” and other opulent sounding pieces.

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Trading Stories, Working Lives: the trial of John Collis, engineer’s patternmaker

We follow the trial and punishment of John Collis – an engineer’s patternmaker in Georgian Leicester – in our latest Trading Stories, Working Lives article.

It’s Monday 20 October 1823. My ancestor John Collis – foreman patternmaker at Cort’s iron foundry – appears before Edward Goulburn, the Recorder at Leicester Borough Sessions. Despite being of otherwise good character, he stands accused of stealing tools from his long-time employers in readiness for joining another foundry. His future hangs in the balance.

A report of the case runs to a full column in the Leicester Chronicle. Tracking it down – thanks to the British Newspaper Archive online – was one of those joyful moments we family historians experience from time to time. Here we have an unexpected glimpse into an ancestor’s life that helps add context and colour to the family narrative.

Sadly, the trial doesn’t go in favour of John Collis and he’s sentenced to twelve months’ hard labour at Leicester Bridewell.

Download the full story here: the trial of John Collis, engineer’s patternmaker

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Trading Stories, Working Lives: George and Anne Waldram, yeoman farmers of Barrow upon Soar

In our latest Trading Stories, Working Lives article, we use the 1750 inventory of George Waldram to get a better understanding of life as a yeoman farmer.

“And including this top shelf we have 109, 110… that’s 111 cheeses in all, by my reckoning,” says John Collishaw as he finishes his counting. He’s standing in the cheese room at Waldram’s farm in Barrow upon Soar. It’s slightly dank in here, with a pungent aroma filling the air. Resting on a wooden chest in the corner, Joseph Haddon, his fellow appraiser, carefully adds to his list the number of cheeses and ascribes them a value of 14d each. After a discussion, they nudge that down to 12d apiece, which he carefully over-writes in heavier ink strokes before totalling them – with perfect arithmetic – at £5 11s.

Leicestershire wills and inventories – along with an extensive collection of parish registers and poll books – have recently been uploaded at Find My Past. I dig in and quickly unearth George Waldram’s documents. His will makes an interesting enough read – there are properties in Laughton and Humberstone to hand on, £100 bequests to each of his children, an annual allowance of £20 for his widow Anne, and the residue of his estate is left to eldest son, George – but it’s the room-by-room inventory that adds the real colour.

Download the full story here: George and Anne Waldram, yeoman farmers of Barrow upon Soar

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Trading Stories, Working Lives: James Powell, an angola and merino spinner of Loughborough

Take a look at our latest Trading Stories, Working Lives occupational history – James Powell, a spinner of angola and merino in Victorian Loughborough.

Pause for a moment in Loughborough Market Place. A portly bronze man sits upon a podium, left leg outstretched; with a gentle smile he admires his single sock, patterned with zig-zags and dots. This is the Sock Man, a sculpture created by Shona Kinloch in 1998 to celebrate Loughborough’s hosiery heritage.

Many of my ancestors – almost too many to count – worked as framework knitters, trimmers and seamers in Loughborough. They formed the very fabric of the town. Yet when I see the Sock Man, one ancestor in particular springs to mind: it’s time to take a closer look at the working life of James Powell (1824-1906), a spinner of Pinfold Gate.

A quick shuttle through the census returns (www.ancestry.co.uk) reveals that James – the son of stocking maker John Powell and Catherine (nee Taylor) – spent almost his entire working life as a spinner. What’s more, he lived on what is essentially one street – Pinfold Row, Street and Gate – for seventy years or so. Could I add a few zig-zags and dots to this rather plain material, spin a little colour into James Powell’s life story?

Download the full story here: James Powell, a spinner in Loughborough

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Trading Stories, Working Lives: Mary Jane and Clara Bramley, Victorian school mistresses and governesses

For our next Trading Stories, Working Lives article we piece together the lives of two sisters – Mary Jane and Clara Bramley – in their work as school mistresses and governesses.

It’s a fresh January morning in 1868. Let’s stand on the junction of Union Street and Freeschool Lane, a few steps north of the High Street in Leicester. Steam-powered spinning machines hiss and rattle at Fielding Johnson’s Bond Street Mills over the road. A horse clip clops past, pulling a creaky cart laden with market produce.

Now listen very carefully outside the corner house; children are chanting in unison “… 2 times 6 is 12, 3 times 6 is 18, 4 times 6 is 24…” Push open the door and peer inside. Miss Clara Bramley strides between the desks, reciting in time with the children. Her older sister Mary Jane jabs rhythmically down the multiplication table on the blackboard. Welcome to the Misses Bramley’s academy at 20 Union Street, Leicester.

The new term has just started – a fact announced in the Leicestershire Chronicle and Leicester Mercury with unfailing regularity every January and July, from 1866 until 1871.

Download the full story here: Mary Jane and Clara Bramley, Victorian school mistresses and governesses

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