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
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