Category Archives: 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.

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: 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: 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.

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

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

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

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)

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.

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.

Getting started: to write or not to write?

You know that Eureka moment. You’ve spent the last hour or so carefully spooling through a microfilm, trying to spot your ancestor amidst the dense newsprint. Then your eye alights on a familiar surname, and your story suddenly comes to life.

Sitting in the Leicestershire Records Office a few years ago, I had such a moment. I’d tracked down a brief obituary for a relative, Frederick Major, who had long since faded from family memory. The grainy Leicester Mercury snippet of 23rd June 1924 revealed that:

 “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.”

A remarkable character, by the sound of it. And what a treasure chest his memories would have been – a personal walk through 19th century Leicester – if only he’d got round to writing them down.

Contrast that with my experience ten years earlier. This time I’m hunting for Edwin Crew. He and his wife Jane had been involved with the Wycliffe Society for the Blind. As I trawl through the Society archives, I uncover ‘City of the Blind at Leicester’, typed on 12 wafer-thin pages. It’s the voice of Edwin in 1932 or thereabouts, recalling the early days of the Society. Despite his apparent reservations – “An autobiography does not appeal to me. However, let us [move] on with the story” – his anecdotes give us a sense of the man and his mission. He’d bothered to write his story and thankfully it has been preserved. Continue reading Getting started: to write or not to write?