Over the last 18 months many of us have found ourselves thrust into the role of unpaid lockdown teacher. As we donned our best ‘teacher face’ and attempted to impart some semblance of learning to our (at times unruly) offspring, we could at least do so in the knowledge that it was a temporary arrangement. But for the humble governesses of the 19th century, it was often a career choice born out of necessity. A governess was not only expected to teach the ‘three R’s’ (reading, writing and arithmetic) – as well as French conversation, history and ‘accomplishments’ such as watercolour painting, piano, dancing, and deportment to girls who could be anywhere between five and 15 years old – but also prepare her older charges for the marriage market. With the destiny of many a young girl in their hands, and a lingering awkwardness over their status in the household, little wonder the figure of the governess became synonymous with quiet obedience and a meek acceptance of her own bleak prospects.
In 1841 Fletton was a small village in the north of the old county of Huntingdonshire, now in Cambridgeshire. With a population of 256, Fletton was a community that relied on agriculture. On 2 June 1845 the East Station, in the north of the parish, opened and Fletton began to change. Listed on the census for 1851 there were just three heads of households employed in the brickyards. By 1911, due to the migration caused by the inter-related industries of the railways and the developing brickyards, Fletton’s population had grown to 4,742. James Bristow, a brickyard owner, was now lord of the manor and the 1911 census recorded 215 heads of households as working in the brickyards, which represented 23.1 per cent of all heads of households.
Near the modern city centre of Birmingham, on a side road that today looks rather forgotten about, is something of an anachronism. Whereas we might think of Birmingham architecture today in terms of the brutalist Rotunda, or the 21st century rounded curves of the Selfridges building, this is a very different building – one that reeks of the Edwardian era.
Photographs have the power to stop the family historian in their tracks as images can powerfully evoke the spirit of the time and add an enthralling visual element to one’s research. One such picture that made me pause and want to find out more was a portrait from the early 1930s of a lady motorist sitting behind the wheel with a sturdy looking dog on her lap. The open-top machine, the driver’s fur coat and her leather gloves all give the impression of a well-to-do woman posing for the photograph to be taken.
When we look for our criminal ancestors, it can be tempting to go for the records of serious offences. Yet for me, it’s at the bottom of the criminal justice ladder that things get interesting. My PhD looked at the cases that came before provincial magistrates at summary proceedings – the precursor of petty sessions – between the 1770s and 1830s, and these were a fascinating snapshot not only into the disputes our ancestors got into, but also what they can tell us about social and community lives at the time. Women commonly appeared having got into verbal disputes with neighbours (usually other women), although sometimes these disputes became physical. There were arguments and fights in pubs – the centres of their community – and opportunistic thefts (such as the stealing of clothes from washing lines). The survival of such records is patchy, but this adds to the sense of discovering something that fewer people have come across when you do find them
In June we examined some of the regional cloth manufactures that ensured the continuing importance of wool in Victorian Britain, from Yorkshire worsteds and Welsh flannels to Cotswold broadcloths and Witney blankets. Two other key aspects of the British woollen industry should also be touched on before we summarise and complete this topic.
The earliest English settlers in the district of what became Huntingdonshire were the Gyrwas, an East Anglian tribe, who early in the sixth century worked their way up the Great Ouse and the Cam as far as Huntingdon. After their conquest of East Anglia in the latter half of the ninth century, Huntingdon became an important seat of the Danes, and the Danish origin of the shire is borne out by an entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle referring to Huntingdon as a military centre to which the surrounding district owed allegiance.
This book will be a source of help for anybody researching their farming and countryside ancestors in England. Looked at through the lens of rural life, and specifically the English village, it provides advice and inspiration on placing rural people into their geographic and historical context. It covers the time from the start of parish registers in the Tudor world, when most of our ancestors worked on the land, until the beginning of the 20th century, when many had moved to the towns.
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