OFF THE RECORD

Shares his views on fam­ily and lo­cal his­tory Re­search­ing an­ces­tors in the pre-com­puter age was a strug­gle, but it had a cer­tain charm says Alan Crosby

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS - ALAN CROSBY lives in Lan­cashire and is editor of The Lo­cal His­to­rian. He is an hon­orary re­search fel­low at Lan­caster and Liverpool univer­si­ties

Pre-com­puter good old days?

My way­ward grand­fa­ther came up in con­ver­sa­tion with the Bolton Fam­ily His­tory So­ci­ety the other day. He was a mul­ti­ple bigamist and em­bez­zler, with a few re­deem­ing fea­tures.

Part of the talk was an ex­pla­na­tion of how I found in­for­ma­tion about him, since when I be­gan I knew only the barest out­line. It was fas­ci­nat­ing to look back and see how things had changed – I started re­search­ing him and his fam­ily in my late teens.

In those days we had no in­ter­net and far fewer hand­books and help­ful ‘how to’ fam­ily his­tory guides. We were heav­ily re­liant on chance dis­cov­ery and plenty of hard slog – no quick clicks with in­stant an­swers. Many of the au­di­ence mem­bers knew ex­actly what I meant – they were also veter­ans of the an­cient pre-tech­nol­ogy days. There were know­ing smiles and nods of re­mem­brance.

For ex­am­ple, many read­ers will re­call do­ing census searches in the vile and thank­fully long gone census room in Por­tu­gal Street in cen­tral Lon­don. A dirty and dis­mal place, it had ser­ried ranks of de­crepit mi­cro­film read­ers, and many of the staff had failed the charm course very badly. There we sat, wind­ing end­lessly through scratched reels of film in the hope of find­ing gold.

Oc­ca­sion­ally we did. On one oc­ca­sion I ex­claimed loudly with de­light when an old fam­ily story about mum’s great grand­mother was con­firmed by a census re­turn for the quaintly named Bul­lock’s Smithy near Stock­port (later rechris­tened, more deco­rously, as Hazel Grove). I re­mem­ber hear­ing one lady shout out “I’ve found some leeches”, and I wasn’t sure if, so damp and mis­er­able was the place, that she ac­tu­ally meant nasty wildlife rather than her an­ces­tors!

Then there was St Cather­ine’s House, home of BMD civil reg­is­tra­tion, where hun­dreds of peo­ple ev­ery day risked life and limb, or at least a her­nia, heav­ing mas­sive in­dex vol­umes off shelves and onto those slop­ing read­ing desks. The books for the early decades were im­mense – su­per-heavy parch­ment vol­umes writ­ten la­bo­ri­ously in long­hand by some poor down­trod­den mid-Vic­to­rian clerks. I used to pity their lot, but would then pity my­self when my neigh­bour banged my arm or squashed my fin­ger with an equally huge tome.

That was fol­lowed by the long wait for a cer­tifi­cate, and the re­al­i­sa­tion that with the new in­for­ma­tion you’d have to be­gin all over again. It was fine if you lived near where your an­ces­tors came from, as the lo­cal li­brary prob­a­bly had copies of the census at least, but mine were far-flung and go­ing to Lon­don was the only op­tion. Thank heav­ens for on­line cen­suses, one of the great bless­ings of the mod­ern age!

But there was fun as well – like vis­it­ing coun­try churches and look­ing at the reg­is­ters in situ. I know that they’re bet­ter off in record of­fices but there was some­thing mag­i­cal about open­ing the parish chest and see­ing the an­cient vol­umes there. I re­call one parish in cen­tral Nor­folk where the reg­is­ters were (quite against the reg­u­la­tions) kept in the vicarage. I made an ap­point­ment to see them. When I turned up, the vicar, in very un­cler­i­cal fash­ion it seemed to me, was watch­ing the horse rac­ing on TV (it was very loud in­deed) and smok­ing an ex­tremely large cigar. He took the rel­e­vant reg­is­ters off his shelf and stood over me while I searched and tran­scribed some en­tries. The ash from his cigar dropped off onto the reg­is­ter. He dusted it off per­func­to­rily and closed the book with a bang. Pre­sum­ably traces of it are still there, though it’s now safe in Nor­folk Ar­chives.

And there were long hours spent read­ing the pages of the Ban­bury Guardian in Ox­ford Li­brary, when I should have been study­ing for my de­gree. I got com­pletely hooked, work­ing through dozens of mi­cro­films and grad­u­ally piec­ing to­gether the story of my grand­fa­ther’s fam­ily in Ban­bury, which 150 years ago was a small Ox­ford­shire mar­ket town. Soon the same news­pa­per will be on­line – and then I can go over it again from my desk in Pre­ston. Isn’t tech­nol­ogy won­der­ful!

Many will re­call do­ing searches in the vile and long gone census room in Lon­don’s Por­tu­gal Street

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