Reflections: 5 Top Tips for Blogging A Life Story

About a year ago, I resolved to write the life story of one of my relatives – George Jennings Collis – over a series of blog posts. As I said at the outset, “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.”

Well, now the task has been completed it’s time to reflect back. I’ll start with a confession: I had hoped to keep to the rhythm of writing one instalment each week, but alas, I couldn’t match the chapter-a-week discipline of Charles Dickens’ part works. Life managed to get in the way, as they say, and also some of the research took rather long than I’d expected. However, I got there in the end – telling George’s story over ten blog posts between June 2015 and August 2016.

At the typewriter

So, what did I learn in the process? Here I share five top tips for blogging a life story.

Continue reading Reflections: 5 Top Tips for Blogging A Life Story

George Jennings Collis: an Evenwood crusader (1908-1918)

This is the tenth (and final) instalment in my biography of George Jennings Collis, but – now that he has arrived at Evenwood, County Durham in 1908 – the story has come full circle. When I first began my research – in those early days before Google searches and online records – George had been something of a mystery. He’d simply disappeared from the records in his home town of Leicester. The one clue that finally nudged me forward was spotting mention in his father’s probate records to “George Jennings Collis of Evenwood Vicarage, Bishop Auckland in the County of Durham, Clerk in Holy Orders, the son of the said deceased…”. It was this reference to Evenwood which really put me on his trail.

Evenwood is a former coal mining village; the main pit, Randolph Colliery, was very much flourishing during George’s time there, employing over 1000 men at its peak in 1914. It was quite a move from his previous appointment in the market town of Morpeth, some 50 miles away.  Ancestry helps set the scene with the 1911 census, providing a snapshot of domestic life at Evenwood Vicarage.

1911 George Jennings and Florence Collis at Evenwood Vicarage rg14_29766_0341_03

The life of a village vicar wasn’t so bad, it seems, as there are two domestic servants as well as a nursery governess for the three children. I decide to get in touch with the present incumbent, to see if I could find out more about George’s life and work in Evenwood; Rev Canon Jane Grieve refers me on to local historians, Roy and Val Proud and Kevin Richardson, who certainly come up trumps, providing me with a series of notes and photos. I’ll let Kevin take up the story with these extracts from his fascinating book ‘Evenwood Remembers’:

Continue reading George Jennings Collis: an Evenwood crusader (1908-1918)

Edwin Crew – Journalist and Philanthropist

We’re delighted to share a guest blog post written by Andrew Alston.  Here he investigates the life of Edwin Crew – a relative connection he shares with Auntie Mabel founder, Graham Barker. It’s a fascinating account of a remarkable man. Thanks for sharing it with us, Andrew.

I first came across Edwin Crew while sorting out great great grandmother Alice Preston’s family. Chorley in Lancashire has relatively few families with the Preston surname, despite being only 10 miles from the place where the name mostly originated, but they all seem to have used the same set of common forenames. And so I found Jane Preston, one of my second cousins four times removed, marrying Edwin Crew. I was working at Crewe, so the name stuck out a bit. The newlyweds moved to St. George’s Street, a smart street occupied by people in “the professions”. Virtually all my Chorley relatives worked in mills and mines, so something different was worth following up.

Market Street, ChorleyVictoria Chorley: Market Street

Edwin Crew was born in Spitalfields, in London’s East End, on 8th November 1855. Not the genteel sort of East End shown in the soap opera, but an area crowded with textile workers, mostly weaving silk on hand looms in their own homes, with the “manufacturer” paying them a pittance. Edward Street, where he has born, seems to have disappeared early on. Bacon Street, where the family had been in 1851, consisted of 3 and 4 storey buildings, which by the end of the 19th century had gone even further downhill. Charles Booth’s poverty survey in the 1890s describes “thieves, prostitutes, mess, ragged children”.
Spitalfields had become the centre of silk production when Huguenot weavers fled persecution in France. Later, Jewish and then Asian immigrants would move into the area.

Poverty_map_old_nichol_1889

Booth’s poverty map (1889) shows Bacon Street coloured Black: “Lowest class. Vicious, semi-criminal.”

Edwin’s father, silk dresser Thomas Crew, was born in Spitalfields too – the Crew surname is common there – but had married Ellen Wildgoose 200 miles away in Macclesfield. Macclesfield had become the northern centre of silk production by the beginning of the 19th century, but unlike Spitalfields, work there was organised in a factory system. The Crew name is common in Macclesfield too. A different Edwin Crew owned substantial mills there.

Thomas and Ellen moved back and forth between Macclesfield and Spitalfields. Children were born at each end of their journeys. The places of birth shown in censuses often don’t coincide with the birth registrations, so Thomas and Ellen were as confused as I became. The move sometimes came between a child’s birth and their baptism. It seems likely that the family travelled by train between the places. Thomas appeared to be a silk dyer when in the south, but in the north he was a silk dresser or finisher, applying the right finish to cloth woven by others.

Continue reading Edwin Crew – Journalist and Philanthropist

WDYTYA? Live 2016: Ready, Get Set… and Go!

When you first visit Who Do You Think You Are? Live it can seem rather daunting. Walk in and you’re surrounded by hubbub: exhibitors chat to visitors about their latest web developments and new publications; microphoned experts address their theatre audiences on research techniques or DNA testing; and, more likely than not, someone in a WWI uniform or Victorian bonnet wanders past on their way for a coffee or the loo.

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Fear not, you’ll soon acclimatise. But it pays to do some basic planning beforehand. Here are 5 tips to make the most of your day:

(1) Cherrypick your workshops: Start planning your day by deciding on a few workshops to attend. Some are free, offered on a first-come first-served basis, and others are ticketed  (£2 in advance, £3 on the day). If you have the One Day Advanced ticket to the show then you have three workshops in hand, included within the ticket price – be sure to use them. Just getting started with your family history? Then take a look at the sessions in the Education Zone, new this year. Otherwise it’s a question of thinking what you’re seeking to get out of the day – you might want to immerse yourself in the military history of your ancestors, figure out what to do next where your research trail has gone cold, or put a question to a WDYTYA celebrity from the TV series. So, dip in and choose a few workshops, and your timetable for the day will start to take shape.

(2) Bring a nutty problem with you: Make the most of the Society of Genealogist volunteers in the ‘Ask the Experts’ section. They’ll give you up to 20 minutes of free advice on how you might progress your research or solve a mystery. You’ll need to prepare in advance – bring copies of your notes, certificates and other documents – and be as specific as you can be about what you’re trying to find out. You can’t book ‘Ask the Expert’ sessions in advance, so when you arrive on the day you might first whizz over to grab a slot between your workshop times. They’re experienced hands at the SoG, they like a challenge!

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Continue reading WDYTYA? Live 2016: Ready, Get Set… and Go!

WDYTYA? Live 2016: the Countdown Begins

Every autumn, when I buy a new diary for the following year, one of the first fixtures to jot down is the three-day Who Do You Think You Are? exhibition. It’s become a firm fixture on the family history landscape, an event not to be missed. This year, WDYTYA? Live (7-9th April) celebrates its 10th anniversary and I’m looking forward to it as much as ever.

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These days it entails a trip to the NEC in Birmingham. For those of us based in the Big Smoke it’s perhaps not so handy as the previous venue at London’s Olympia, but the journey pays off; it’s now the world’s largest family history show, attracting some 13,000 visitors. It’s an invigorating mix of over 130 exhibition stands and 90 talks: dip into some newly-released records or publications, take along your old family photos or heirlooms to be explained, and get fresh ideas on how to overcome your brick walls. Who knows, you might even rub shoulders with historian Sir Tony Robinson, antiques expert Eric Knowles, or Anita Rani, one of the latest WDYTYA subjects.

Over the coming weeks, I’ll be highlighting some exhibitors and talks that might be of particular interest to those looking to write their family history. To help set the scene in the meantime, I’ve included below an article that I wrote after volunteering as an advocate for Ancestry at a previous WDYTYA? show. Not knowing what queries would turn up next meant it was a thrilling, rollercoaster kind of day helping fellow family historians progress their research. So, hold on tight, and here we go…

Continue reading WDYTYA? Live 2016: the Countdown Begins

Trading Stories, Working Lives: John Collins, a Victorian fishmonger and game dealer

Graham Barker continues his occupational history series with John Collins, a Victorian fishmonger and game dealer

Leicester Fish Market with 1883-4 trade directory listingWander through Leicester Market Place today and you’ll see that it’s in transition; the 1970s indoor market has been demolished, plans are in hand to create a piazza behind the Corn Exchange, and a new food hall – angled and curved in glass and steel – is set out with tempting displays of fresh fish, cheeses and cooked meats.1877 Advert for Christmas

Such change is nothing new; it’s simply the latest instalment in the history of a market that has evolved since the 13th century. John Collins – a Victorian fishmonger, game dealer and publican – also witnessed many changes hereabouts. In this article, Graham Barker delves into the archives to find out more. Click to download: John Collins, Victorian fishmonger and game dealer

John Collins at the White Swan Inn (detail)

Take a look too at the other articles in our Trading Stories, Working Lives series:

Mary Ann Norman, Victorian laundress of Paradise Place

John and George Firn, monumental masons

Polkey boatmen of Loughborough

The Harrisons: gardeners, nurserymen and seeds merchants

George Robinson, Victorian letter carrier

Trading Stories, Working Lives: Mary Ann Norman, a Victorian laundress

It’s 11 o’clock on a Monday morning in April 1861. Just off Leicester’s Oxford Street – opposite the Swan & Rushes – a narrow alleyway leads into Paradise Place. Seven cottages nestle around a courtyard, alongside the Mission School. Listen to the click and rattle of framework knitters in several of the cottages. At No 5, Mary Ann Norman has already spent three hours beating bed-sheets with a dolly in the washtub. Now she’s ironing linen, helped by her mother, Fanny Wells. The air is damp, with petticoats drying on a line strung across the room.

e615fe7511fa7367d150449985b61fd5For about 30 years, Mary Ann worked as a laundress. It’s fortunate that her work merits a mention in each census return;  women’s employment was often under-recorded. Yet the particulars of Mary Ann’s work are scant.

In the latest of our Trading Stories, Working Lives articles, we take a closer look at life as a Victorian laundress. Click to download: Mary Ann Norman, Victorian laundress of Paradise Place

Take a look too at the other articles in our Trading Stories, Working Lives series:

John Collins, Victorian fishmonger and game dealer

John and George Firn, monumental masons

Polkey boatmen of Loughborough

The Harrisons: gardeners, nurserymen and seeds merchants

George Robinson, Victorian letter carrier

George Jennings Collis: Farewell to Morpeth (1908)

St James' Centre Morpeth

Tuesday 5th May 1908

It’s a rainy evening in Morpeth, and yet a large number of St James’ parishioners turn out to the church hall to bid George Jennings Collis farewell. For the past three years he has served as senior curate in the parish and they wish to give him a good send off. A collection has raised sufficient funds to buy four silver candlesticks.

Cups of tea are served from a trestle table at the back of the hall, ready to warm those attending as they arrive. The rector, Rev J J Davies, brings the proceedings to a start – “Ladies and gentlemen, if you could please take a seat and settle down” – and the hubbub slowly quietens.

“Thank you for coming this evening, and I bid you a warm welcome. As you know, we’re here to make a presentation to our senior curate, George Collis and Mrs Collis, as they head off to Evenwood. Before I came here to Morpeth a couple of years ago, it’s fair to say that I had heard a great deal about Mr Collis; from what I heard, I gathered that he had won his way into the hearts of the people, and in their affections.” Someone pipes up “hear, hear” from the audience.

Rev Davies continues: “Such had been the experience of Mr Collis as an assistant curate that you, I am sure, wanted him to fill the place I fill at that moment. I’m sorry that you did not get your wish satisfied.” Laughter fills the hall. On the raised platform, George smiles.

Continue reading George Jennings Collis: Farewell to Morpeth (1908)

George Jennings Collis: coastal walks and the curate’s egg at Embleton (1897-1905)

After three years service in Berwick Upon Tweed, George moves 40 miles or so southwards along the Northumbrian coastline, to settle as curate of Holy Trinity Church in Embleton village.

Holy Trinity Embleton in late Victorian times

He’s following in the footsteps of many notable and literary incumbents in the parish. Most famous of all was the Rev Mandell Creighton, the vicar of Embleton in 1875-1884 who later became Bishop of London. It was whilst at Embleton that Creighton wrote his History of the Papacy, The Life of Sir George Grey, and collected material for the Northumberland County History, of which he was one of the founders.

Creighton’s daily routine provides an insight into the life of a late Victorian clergyman. Each weekday morning, he spends four hours reading in the vicarage library. In the afternoons,  he visits – with his wife, when possible – the homes of their parishioners, listening to them, giving advice, offering prayers, conducting services for the housebound, and, on occasion, handing out home-made medical remedies.

Continue reading George Jennings Collis: coastal walks and the curate’s egg at Embleton (1897-1905)

George Jennings Collis: from Boston to Berwick-upon-Tweed (1894-97)

Sunday 16th December 1894. It’s a chill winter’s day in Newcastle. George Jennings Collis is preparing for his ordination at the Cathedral. It’s a big move, in a grand building, yet George is certain this is the pathway determined for him; he’s rock steady in his Christian faith.

St_Nicholas_Cathedral,_Newcastle_-_East_end_-_geograph.org.uk_-_974201

The Bishop of Newcastle – Ernest Wilberforce – officiates at the proceedings. Having taken holy orders, George is ready to start his new life as a curate in Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland. Prayers are said to bless him in his work. George’s fiancé Florence Ingamells smiles over to him from the front pew. The choir sings heartily as the procession parades out of the Cathedral.

Being a curate is not George’s first job after graduating from Clare College; two newspaper snippets from the Stamford Mercury reveal that he’d spent some time – a couple of years – as a master at Boston Grammar School. A cutting from November 1894 records his move from the school:

1894 George J Collis as master at Boston Grammar School passes divinity exam and is appointed Berwick curate, Stamford Mercury, 30 Nov 1894

Continue reading George Jennings Collis: from Boston to Berwick-upon-Tweed (1894-97)