FIND RURAL ANCESTORS
While it’s hard to track down references to the working lives of your ag lab ancestors, writes Jonathan Scott, it’s always possible to research the wider rural community
While agricultural archives are patchy and references to individual workers are rare, estate and family collections may present a good potential source for finding proof or further information about your family’s working life and living arrangements.
The wealthy landowners and estates that employed them tended to leave behind huge paper trails, and lots of these archive catalogues are now searchable via The National Archive’s Discovery website.
This month’s selection also includes more general websites that can help you find out more about the wider community, working conditions, pay, diet and the history of their industry or craft. The rise of the organic movement and an upsurge of interest in traditional living, means that there are also many websites which focus on the techniques of country crafts and trades.
1 Museum of English Rural Life reading.ac.uk/ merl
The Museum looks after objects relating to all kinds of rural crafts and communities. Its unique archival collections include records of major agricultural manufacturing firms, organisations and cooperatives, collections of personal records and journals of farm workers, plus company accounts from farms across England. To access the Archive and Museum database, go to reading.ac.uk/ adlib, or you can explore examples from the Museum’s image library at reading.ac.uk/ merl/imagelibrary –currently divided into the categories that include crafts, gypsies and the Women’s Land Army. You should also explore the Research & Projects page for news of current and completed projects.
2 The British Newspaper Archive britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk
From obituaries and farm sales, to prize winners at county fairs, rural newspapers can be a mine of information about farms and the people who worked in them. You can search directly using the name of your ag lab ancestors, but it’s also worth searching using the name of the farm and the farmer if you know where they worked. If your ancestors suddenly up sticks and head for the city, then local newspapers can sometimes lead you to their reasons. If you have a subscription to findmypast. co.uk then you can access the same newspapers from that site.
3 Connected Histories connectedhistories.org
This federated search hub allows you to trawl material from British History Online ( british- history. ac.uk). This includes the Victoria County Histories, which provide revealing histories of parishes and townships, sometimes detailing the fortunes and practices of individual farms. The site also has lots of volumes of local history writings from the 17th century onwards – although the antiquarian authors tended to be more interested in the fortunes of the landed gentry than farm workers.
4 Vision of Britain visionofbritain.org.uk
Type the place where your kin lived into the search box and you will be presented with an historic map of the area, with accompanying local history excerpts taken from sources such as John Marius Wilson’s Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales (1880). You can then explore various historic maps of the same area, back to 1805, or click on the side menu to view historic photos of the town or village, and read statistics drawn from census data. Although not specific to rural research, it’s a very useful tool for quickly finding out more about an area.
5 Blacksmiths Index blacksmiths.mygenwebs.com
Ann Spiro’s Genealogical Index of Blacksmiths, which is drawn mainly from UK census data, is a great example of the kind of website relating to individual trades and crafts that you can find online. It records not only blacksmiths but also related craftsmen such as cartwrights, wheelwrights, farriers and iron workers. The data is organised by county and includes, as a minimum, the name, birthdate and address of the individual, as well as details of the source material.
Farm hands pitch hay into a cart on a farm near Whitby, c1880