The origins and evolution of surnames in England

It is agreed by the authorities on the etymology of surnames that few if any surnames of a hereditary nature were evident in England before the Norman Conquest in 1066. Second names can be found but they are in the form of bynames and nicknames which were not passed between generations. Such bynames and nicknames developed, it is believed, to differentiate those with the same common personal[1] name living in the same place.

Such bynames and nicknames may have identified the person in many ways including by their occupation, location, topography, personal names (patronymic/matronymic), other family relationships[2], physical appearance, physical characteristics and mental and moral characteristics. I will discuss these in more detail later.

There were three main foreign influences on the English language over the centuries prior to the Norman Conquest:

  • Danish, particularly in the east and north east of England between 793AD and the Norman Conquest, with the influence of the Vikings who brought Danish to the English shores;
  • German, particularly in southern England with the influence of the Anglo-Saxons from the 5th century until the Norman Conquest, who had a Germanic vocabulary and is often referred to an “Old English” being the earliest form of the English language;
  • Latin which of course was the official written language until into the 17th century, and in legal documents until 1733.

By the time of the Norman Conquest, surnames were already in use in some European countries although were certainly not universal. When the Norman Barons became landowners following the Norman Conquest, there were in fact only a few who possessed surnames which had been inherited (often however from only one or two generations back) e.g. de Tosny, Warenes, Mortimer and Vernons[3].

Norman Barons who did not have hereditary surnames soon began to adopt them. More commonly they adopted locative type surnames by reference to their family’s chief residence, which was often still in Normandy, rather than the name of their English manor. Some Norman Barons were content with adopting patronymics (e.g. this may have been the case if their father still lived at their family’s chief resident in France), nicknames such as Walter Giffard[4] and even occupational names such as Haimo the Steward[5].

Having said the above, it is still with some uncertainty as to which, why and how these Norman “newcomers” adopted their surnames. There are no records from the time of the actual invasion to confirm which Barons came over at the time of the conquest and which came over in the immediate aftermath. The first record available is the Doomsday book of 1086, some twenty years after the invasion. It should also be noted that by the 12th and 13th centuries many junior members of the Baronial families began to adopt new surnames!

From the Doomsday book it can be seen that many of the minor Lords and Knights  who came over with the Barons and were rewarded with landholding by way of “tenant-in-chief”, had not yet adopted surnames, at least not hereditary surnames. It is worth noting that the Doomsday book only provides details of those landowners and tenants of land who the King was able to tax, thus the “ordinary” person does not feature and records for those of the lower classes of society do not really begin until the 13th century, such as the Assize Rolls which do include all classes although most are landowners.

The adoption of hereditary surnames was slow; given our fast pace of life today, it could almost be described as “snail pace!” Research conducted indicates that some wealthy English London families had adopted hereditary surnames by the late 12th century, with the majority of the Norman tenants-in-chief in southern England, the Midlands and East Anglia and wealthy English families living in the leading provincial towns, such as Winchester, York, Norwich, Lincoln[6], having adopted hereditary surnames by the early to mid-13th century. It should be noted however this distinction between the Normans and English families becomes clouded in this period when the English began to adopt first names of Norman origin.

Norman tenants-in-chief elsewhere in the country had adopted hereditary surnames by the late 13th to early 14th century as had Burgesses, families from urban areas and the foot soldiers of the Norman Conquest (and later immigrants) whose ancestors became farmers, craftsmen, servants etc.

In the south ordinary Englishmen in rural areas (farmers, craftsmen, servants, merchants etc) had largely adopted hereditary surnames by the mid-14th century, although there were some families still without. In the north it took a whole century longer and by the early to mid-15th century it was rare to find a family to not have a hereditary surname. One reason for this may be due to socio-economic consequences of the “Black Death” which spread throughout England in 1348 and which within 3 years had killed a third to a half of the population, “killing” with it many newly formed surnames, particularly where the whole family died (which was often the case).

The Black Death hit the lower classes of society in much greater numbers than the higher classes perhaps because they were more able to avoid or escape infected areas or because they have better access to what health care there was at the time. This resulted in a shortage of farmers and farmer labourers with many farms being left vacant. These were often taken over by families moving in from other parts of the country, spreading both their own surname and possibly the “trend” of adopting surnames into the northern areas.

Having stated all the above, with the development of surnames being so slow and varying in different areas of the country, where surnames are first recorded in lay subsidy rolls and poll taxes[7] in the 14th century it is without any certainly that they can all in fact be described as hereditary surnames without the supporting genealogical evidence; some may have simply been bynames which were not passed to their children. One reason for this could be that the “surname” was given to them by an official who drew up the rolls of tax payers.

As already stated, it is not until the 15th century that it is thought most people of English origin had a fixed hereditary surname, even then, perhaps because of the recovering population after devastation of the Black Death, there are new surnames appearing in the Tudor subsidy rolls. It can however be said that the number of new surnames did not grow at the same rate are the growth in population because of the practice of hereditary surnames. Again having said this, there were always exceptions and families could still be found in the 16th and 17th centuries without a surname, particularly in the northern city of York[8] and isolated areas of South Lancashire[9]. Essentially new surnames were being created throughout the centuries following their introduction until the 16th and 17th century when the written records of people became much more prevalent (parish registers, parish records, the array of non-conformist records, legal records, government and official records etc.).

But how were surnames adopted? In a variety of ways.

Many names brought over by the Normans (both at the time of the Conquest and by later immigrants) were anglicised through the centuries. For example “-ville” would be replaced with “-field” so Grenville became Greenfield, Semerville became Somerfield. Some names such as Beauchamp and Guillaume (amongst many) were altered for ease of spelling and pronunciation by the English, again being spelt phonetically. So Beauchamp became Beecham and Guillaume became various forms of William[10].

Further, French-Norman personal names began to be adopted by English families and this was to the decline of earlier Anglo-Saxon personal names. It is interesting therefore to note that many surnames in the 14th century were “formed from [Anglo-Saxon] personal names no longer then in use”[11] thus suggesting these were in the period between c.1150 and c.1470[12] adopted initially as bynames and eventually hereditary names as their use as personal names declined. Reaney[13] states “A number of personal names which are not recorded in Old English[14] after the eighth or ninth centuries reappear in Middle English. Some of these names are evidence only by their occurrence as surnames, others by their first record in the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth century”. He goes on to set out three pages of Anglo-Saxon personal names which survive in modern surnames, e.g. Grente (Grant), Eadweard (Edward), Ealdrœd (Aldred, Allred), Herewearld (Harold). This demonstrates one way in which names have come and gone and been adapted/anglicised through the centuries.

Bynames and resulting hereditary surnames adopted from personal names are usually patronymic, that is, they are from the personal names usually of the father. A much smaller number were matronymic, that is, they are from the personal names of the mother.

There are a variety of patronymic surnames:

  • Those which are taken exactly from the personal name such as Thomas, Owen, Duncan, and usually formed prior to the 13th century;
  • Those where a personal name has been suffixed, most commonly with “-son” as in my maiden name of Richardson. These type of surnames were mostly commonly found in northern regions of England (such as Yorkshire (my native county)) and could also be formed from hypocoristic personal names, that is short forms of names such as Dick (for Richard) becoming Dickson or Dixon. It is said they were formed between the late 13th and mid-14th century largely amongst small free tenants or unfree tenants who were in the greater numbers in the norther regions;
  • Those where a possessive “-s” was added to a personal name such as Richards. These type of surnames were most commonly found in southern regions of England (such as the South East Midlands, East Anglia, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and Herefordshire) and their history and growth parallels that of “-son” in the northern regions. Kinley goes so far as to suggest “There was in fact something in the nature of a boundary running across the north Midlands, to the north of which surnames ending in ‘-son’ became numerous, and to the south of which surnames in ‘-s’ became common”[15];
  • From those with a possessive “-s” we also get names ending in “-x” when such names have become written, e.g. Dix, Rix;
  • Those where personal names such as Ellis and Henry, Will and Adam with the suffixes “-cock” and “-kin” added to hypocoristic version of them i.e. Elcock and Hancock, Wilcock, Wilkin, and Adcock, Atkin. Such suffixes were found in all regions from the mid-13th century usually in those of the lower classes as with the cases of “-son” and “-s” above;
  • Those where a personal name has been prefixed with “Fitz-” (from the French fils de) “Mac-”/”Mc-” (Ireland (prefixed to father’s name), Gaelic parts of Scotland, Isle of Man) , “O-” (Ireland prefixed to grandfather’s name);
  • Those personal names originating in Wales, although having now spread throughout Britain, which were originally prefixed with “Ap-” (where the name began with a consonant) or “Ab-” (were the name began with a vowel) meaning “son of” e.g. Ap Roger (son of Roger), Ab Adam (son of Adam). Such names were common in Wales until the 16th century after which many ‘dropped’ the “A” leaving surnames beginning with “P” or “B” such as Price/Pryce/Pryse from Ap Rhys and Bowen from Ab Owen;

Patronymic surnames, in the early years as I have stated above were more likely to be bynames not inherited thus John may have been known as Richardson because he was the son of Richard, but his own sons were more likely to have been known as Johnson, son of John. Clearly this poses some difficulty for the genealogist in trying to trace this family back beyond the first ancestor with the known hereditary surname. Unfortunately, as yet I have not traced my Richardson ancestors beyond the mid-19th century, although not through the lack of records, through the lack of time to conduct my own family research! Interestingly though the Richardson ancestors I have traced to date are in the northern counties of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire where it appears the surnames is most likely to have originated.

The way in which patronymic surnames evolved does mean that when studying the origins of such names, there is highly unlikely to be one origin and it is almost certain that not all families with the same patronymic surname will be related no matter how far the surname can be traced back even where the families were from the same area. This is largely the result of the decreasing number of personal names in the early years of the development of bynames into hereditary names as discussed above.

Matronymic names should also be mentioned, albeit they were adopted as bynames and surnames in much fewer numbers and most likely where the mother was an heiress; or possibly where the child was illegitimate (although until the 18th century it was more likely that fathers would acknowledge such children with the child taking the father’s name). Matronymics were also ‘adapted’ by the addition of suffixes and prefixes in the same was as patronymics, e.g. “Emmot” from Emma, “Fitzmeriet” from Meriet[16] and “Margisson” from Margery.

Bynames and Surnames also developed from place-names (locative surnames), most of which have developed since the Norman Conquest. Perhaps the most obvious names in this category are those ending in “-ham”, “-ton”, “-by”, “-thorpe”, “-ford”, “-holme”, “-mouth” etc which are frequently endings of place-names. However not all are so obvious:

  • Spelling of place-names themselves have changed, in much the same way as language and surnames have changed through pronunciation and spelling as discussed elsewhere in this assignment, particularly given many of these types of surnames were adopted from pace-names in the 12th to the 14th centuries;
  • Place-names have come and gone – many locative name originate from villages, hamlets and small homesteads which no longer exists, particularly following “the conversion of arable to pasture and the enclosure of open fields, mostly in the period from about 1450 to 1550”[17].
  • There maybe/may have been more than one place with the same name.

Care therefore needs to be taken when researching locative surnames, in particular consulting old maps from as close to the period in which the earliest form of the surname is known. Locative surnames do not appear to have been more popular in one area or another, although different areas may have had their own characteristics. For example, the ending “-thwaite”  is most often found in West Yorkshire, Lancashire and the Lake District (of Norwegian influence) whilst “-thorpe” is most often found in areas to the East of the Pennines[18] (of Danish influence).

Further, some names which appear to be locative may come from a different origin altogether i.e. origins from a personal name or an occupational name (see later). Kinley[19] refers to the surname Arnold which could be from Arnold in Nottinghamshire, Arnold in North Yorkshire or indeed from a personal name; also the surname Stirrop which could be from Styrrup in Nottinghamshire or could be an occupational name.

It must also be remembered that locative names may derive from French place-names, particularly where their origins are in the first century or so following the Norman Conquest as discussed earlier.

Related to locative names are those which originate from topography, that is, from a feature of the land where a person lives, both natural and man-made e.g. hill, bridge, wood etc. Many of these type of names were formed in a similar way to patronymic names, by the use of suffixes. The most common suffixes included“-er” as in “Bridger” and “-man” as in “Bridgeman” both of which could be also be of occupational origin i.e. someone who worked on bridges. Other examples include Brooker/Brookman, Churcher/Churchman, Forder and Hilman[20] etc.

Topographical bynames and surnames may also have the possessive “-s” or the suffix “-son” added again similar to patronymic names. Such variations are more commonly found from the beginning of the 16th century although a small number can be found in the 14th and 15th centuries. It is often the case that earlier versions of the surname for the same family are without the “-s” adding to the complication for genealogists of tracing the earlier ancestors. Such plural endings on names often arose where there were a number of the topographical feature in one area, i.e. more than one bridge close to where a person lived, possibly they lived between two bridges etc.

Prepositions were also often used with topographical names, more so than with any otjher type of surname, although they could be found with locative names too. The most common prepositions is thought to be “atte” as in “atte Bridge” and “atte” Wood. But other examples include “under”, “over”, “by”, “beneath” and “above”. They were often, in the early days, particularly before the 15th century, in the French equivalent, such as “de”, “de la”, “de le” and “del”. Most of these propositions began to be ‘dropped’ or ‘merged’ in the 14th and 15th centuries, thus producing modern versions such as Atbridge/Attbridge and Attwood/Atwood.

Occupations also gave rise to an array of bynames and surnames, including those holding certain state or church office such as Abbot, Constable, Bishop, Sheriff etc. and ranks or status in society such as Freeman, Burgess, Knight, Mayor, Lord etc. Occupational bynames and surnames are perhaps amongst the earliest to become established, an obvious way to distinguish people with the same name if they had different occupations, this is particularly so for the most popular occupations such as smiths (locksmith, blacksmith etc), bakers, taylors, cooks, turners, millers etc. As Kinley states[21] “In most villages there would be only one or two smiths, one or two tailors, and so forth, so that the occupations in question were sufficiently distinctive to mark out a man from his fellow villagers, hence were suitable for use as surnames”.

Occupation names however are often not that obvious:

  • Regional variations – different names were often used for the same occupation in different parts of the country. For example, “Brewer and Brewster, Deemer and Dempster (‘judge’), Dyer and Dyster or Dexter, Fuller and Folster, Kember, Kemster or Kempster (a ‘comber’ of wool or flax), Hollier and Hollister, Lister and Litster, Palliser and Pallister (maker of palings), Sanger and Sangster (‘singer’), Shaper and Shapster (‘tailor’ or ‘seamstress’), or Webber and Webster”[22];
  • Arising from different languages – Latin, Welsh, Gaelic, French;
  • They can be confused with topographical names as in Bridger discussed above, oher examples given by Kinley include “Bedster” more likely to be from a Sussex village now lost, and “Docker” more likely to be from Docker in Cumbria;
  • One could be forgiven for thinking my married name of “Pettyfer” is from the French  “Petit Four”, I must admit this was my first thought, deriving from someone who made them, how wrong I was! It is in fact from the French pied de fer (iron foot) so from a nickname (see below) or occupation (a foot soldier);
  • They could be names of “tools” of a trade rather than the occupation itself. Reaney[23] uses the examples of a metal worker who “could be called both Seintier or Bellyeter” from the type of bells he made and “William le Pinour ‘maker of combs’ was also called le Horner from the horn he used”. Also included are names such as “Kitchen”, “Kitchener”, “Buttery” and “Hallman”.

Bynames and surnames were also ‘created’ from “nicknames” or “pet names”. These are generally said to be amongst the fewest in surnames today as many of the medieval nicknames ‘died out’. Amongst them today are:

  • Those deriving from physical appearance include surnames today such as Little, Short, Small, Little and colours such as Brown, Black, White, Grey, Gray and Reed, Reid and Read (from red) (colours of hair or complexion)[24] but not Green which is more likely of a locative or topographical origin;
  • Those deriving from personal habits, mental and moral characteristics, e.g. “Blessed”, “Curtis” (from Courteous), “Good”, “Goodchild”, “Treadwell” and “Proud”. Many such names are originally derived from their French counterpart such as “Bonifant” (bon enfant – good infant).

Amongst nicknames are also those deriving from:

  • nature i.e. from mammals, birds and fish such as “Lamb”, “Finch” and “Gurnard”;
  • Seasons and festivals i.e. “Summer”, “Christmas”
  • “oaths, greetings, or similar expressions”[25]

With an increasingly widespread use of hereditary surnames, one would be forgiven to think that tracing a family would be made easier. But this may not the case. Why? Because surnames were adopted and changed in a variety of ways over time, many of which have already been discussed above. However the tracing of surnames becomes even more complicated if we consider the impact of pronunciation and the spelling of surnames before spelling became standardised.  I will discuss this further in assignment 4.

Two other reasons why names changed or varied also need to be considered by the genealogist:

  1. Families themselves may have changed the spelling and pronunciation to either distinguish them amongst others with a popular name (Smith/Smythe, Taylor/Tayleure) or in the lower classes to make them sound a more distinguished family. It may also be the case that families chose to change their own surname completely choosing a pleasanter name, this is particularly so if the origins of the surname was as a nickname. For example, Charles Bardsley provides an array of examples under the heading “Nicknames from Peculiarities of Disposition— Objectionable”[26], including:
  2. “‘ribaldry’ …. that which is foul- mouthed in expression….. A ‘ribaud’ or ‘ribaut’ belonged to the very scum of society. He was a man who hung on to the skirts of the nobility by doing all their more infamous work for them”;
  3. “‘Robert le Lewed,’ or ‘William le Lewed,’ is also lost to our directories, and certainly would be an unpleasant appellation in the nineteenth century”;
  4. “‘Robert le Sot,’ or ‘Maurice Drun-card,’ or ‘Jakes Drynk-ale,’ or ‘Geoffrey Dringke- dregges,’ or ‘Thomas Sourale’.
  • A more unorthodox reason but not unknown was for an individual in a Will to make it a condition of inheritance that the legatee take on the testator’s surname. This may often be the case if the testator has no direct descendants to carry on the family name and a more distant relative is to inherit. John Titford refers to two well-known families:

“Florence Nightingale’s father, William Edward Shore, who abandoned his own surname and became Nightingale in 1815 on inheriting the Derbyshire estates of his mother’s uncle, Peter Nightingale, and that of Jane Austen’s brother Edward, who took the surname of Knight by Royal Licence in 1812 when he inherited and estate from his father’s cousin, Thomas Knight.”[27]

Lastly surname aliases can cause much confusion and could result in the individual being recorded under different surnames. For example, Smith alias Jones could be recorded as Smith or Jones or Smith-Jones with any one of the three names being used in different documents/records to identify the same person. This was often the case where a landowner held land in more than one location, he may be named after one of the locations alias the other and vice versa in the second location e.g. James York alias Pickering/John Pickering alias York.

An alias may also result from different spellings of the surname, e.g. “James Roides alias Rodes; Simon Woodhouse alias Wydis, and John Clegge otherwise Clagge”[28].

It is clear from the above discussion that the origins and evolution of surnames is far from straight forward and the genealogist should always bear in mind how a surname may have changed through the centuries. The further back in time the research the more variants the Genealogists needs to be aware there may be and be prepared to search all known/possible variables in an attempt to continue the ancestral line, including potential alternative surnames bearing in mind any other history of the family. It is also important to remember that where a surname has varied particular care will need to be taken to ensure it is the correct family line and not another family with a similar/same name. The more and varied records which are researched, checked and compared, the more accurate the research will be.

Sometimes it can be difficult to work out what variants there may be and useful resources to help are Dialect dictionaries[29] and Surname dictionaries[30].

[1] First name/Baptismal name/Christian name/given name

[2] e.g. Bastard, Cousin, Husband, Kinsman, Widowson D. Kennett “The History of Surnames” page 42

[3] D. Hey “Family Names and Family History” pages 31 to 32

[4] (meaning chubby cheeks in French) which he in fact inherited from his father’s nickname: D. Hey “Family Names and Family History” page 41

[5] Sheriff of Kent 1077 to c.1100: D. Hey “Family Names and Family History” page 41

[6]  (14May 2019)

[7] Which in theory covered all households except the itinerant and paupers

[8] R. A. McKinley “A History of British Surnames” page 36

[9] R. A. McKinley “A History of British Surnames” page 8

[10] E.g. William, Williams, Williamson

[11] P. H. Reaney and R. M. Wilson “A Dictionary of English Surnames” page xxiii

[12] The period of Middle English

[13] P. H. Reaney and R. M. Wilson “A Dictionary of English Surnames” page xxiii

[14] Anglo-Saxon

[15] R. A. McKinley “A History of British Surnames” page 113

[16] An heiress who married a minor landowner, Peter Picot,

[17] R. A. McKinley “A History of British Surnames” page 56

[18] D. Kennett “The History of Surnames” page 35

[19] R. A. McKinley “A History of British Surnames” page 53

[20] R. A. McKinley “A History of British Surnames” pages 80 – 81

[21] R. A. McKinley “A History of British Surnames” page 133

[22] R. A. McKinley “A History of British Surnames” page 140

[23] P. H. Reaney and R. M. Wilson “A Dictionary of English Surnames” page xlii

[24] R. A. McKinley “A History of British Surnames” page 156

[25] R. A. McKinley “A History of British Surnames” page 161

[26] C. W. Bardsley “English Surnames: Their Sources and Significance” page 478 – 481

[27] J. Titford “Searching for Surnames” page 20

[28] D. Kennett “The History of Surnames” page 51

[29] E.g. J. Wright “The English Dialect Dictionary” Volumes 1 – 6 and R. C. Hope “A Glossary of Dialectical Place Nomenclature”

[30] E.g P. H. Reaney and R. M. Wilson “A Dictionary of English Surnames” and C. W. Bardsley “A Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames”


Hey, D                        Family Names and Family History (Hambledon and London 2000)

Roger, C. D.                The Surname Detective (Manchester University Press 1995)

Titford, J                     Searching for Surnames (Countryside Books 2002)

Kennett, D                  The Surnames Handbook (The History Press 2012)

McKinley, R. A          A History of British Surnames (Longman 1995)

Bardsley, C. W.          English Surnames: Their Sources and Significance (Chatto & Windus 1906)

Anderson, W              Genealogy and Surnames: with some Heraldic and Biographical Notes (William Ritchie Edinburgh 1865)

Weekly, E                   Surnames (John Murray 1917)

Bardsley, C. W           A Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames (Oxford University Press 1901)

Reaney, P. H and Wilson, R. M         A Dictionary of English Surnames (Oxford University Press 2005)

Hope, R. C                  A Glossary of Dialectical Place Nomenclature (Simpkin, Marshall & Co 1883)

Wright, J                     English Dialect Dictionary Volumes 1 – 6 (Oxford University Press 1898 – 1905)

Never too young for family history

Well, that may be an overstatement, I’m not sure my 2 and 1/2 year old would understand if I asked her. for example, “who are your aunts and uncles?” but she would know them if a named them. She simply does not understand the terms “Aunt” or “uncle” yet but the more we talk about them in those terms and explain their relationship to us, her parents, then she will learn those relationships much earlier.

I am certainly of the view that pre-school children can and should be introduced to family history. Yesterday I spent half an hour or so with my 4 and 1/2 year old (being born in November he is one of the oldest in his pre-school class) looking at his living ancestors and showing him how they are connected. He was able to tell me who his aunts and uncles were and his cousins but he didn’t really understand how we were all connected.

You may think that this is something he should know at his age but I am sure not all children his age will do! Think about those children who are not so fortunate as to have aunts/uncles/cousins or living grandparents.

Does you young son/daughter really understand why their Aunt is their Aunt? Why their Uncle is their uncle? How they are related to their cousins? Or even how they are related to their grandparents?

Again this may seem obvious to adults but to pre-school children and those in the early school years it may in fact be not! And this is where family history begins!

Family History at a young age is all about getting to know and understand how you “fit into” your family and who are living ancestors are. Something as simple as telling your children about your own childhood and how it differs to today may grab their attention and engages them in family history.

This can be a long term project for your children and you, growing your tree by each generation as your child grows older and has more understanding. It can also be helpful in their education of history. I remember studying history at school and thinking why is this important? Why do we need to know this? Being able to put various periods and events in history into context through your own ancestors living during that period or event can really bringing history alive and help to understand how those periods and events have shaped our lives and families today.

Of course all children are different and some may have no interest at all, by why not try and wet their appetite, you never know until you try! And of course, those of you who are grandparents…..well the same applies!

Take a look at my Family pedigree tree for young children

Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives (AGRA)

” When you are researching your ancestors there may be times when you need to use the services of a professional genealogist or a family history researcher. So how do you know where to find a good quality researcher? The best way is by using a Member of AGRA (Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives) for research in England and Wales”

Having started my business in October 2018, I decided in November 2018 that I was ready to submit my application for AGRA Associate. As is the usual process, I was invited to attend an interview with the Board of Assessors on 22nd March 2019. It seemed such a long time to wait but it came round so quickly!

As part of the interview process I was required to prepare a drop-down pedigree tree from a number of documents AGRA provided one week prior to the interview which would then be discussed at the interview. As ever I was drawn into the family from the documents provided and really enjoyed “teasing” out the necessary information to complete the required pedigree tree. Whilst no other research was required, as any genealogist will appreciate, I could not resist a little research deeper into the family. A very interesting family, on the one hand seemingly affluent but those fortunes did not favour all members of the family – perhaps it was his marriage to a servant which was his financial “downfall”?!

Anyway, pedigree tree drawn, documents thoroughly “got to grips with” I nervously attended the interview. A panel of three lovely ladies awaited me. Pedigree tree approved and onto the documents themselves. They could clearly tell I was nervous the brain just wouldn’t find the words I wanted and I was somewhat thrown by the wording of some of the questions but through discussion we got the answer they were seeking! It certainly turned out not the be the “interrogation” I had dreamed in my head it would be, non of the particularly technical questions I had imagined there would be about parish registers, census records and civil registration.

In the end I thankfully came out feeling it had gone well and was hopeful my application would be successful. I would find out by the end of the next week…….thankfully I only had 4 days to wait. Into my inbox pops an email from the Chair of the Board of Assessors. I nervously open it…. Yes my application had been accepted and I was now (subject to payment of the joining fee) an AGRA Associate.

You may be wondering why it has taken me until now to write this post. Well, yesterday I (nervously) attended my first official event as an AGRA Associate – the AGRA study day and AGM. It was lovely to finally meet members and fellow associates, a very friendly and welcoming group of like-minded people. It made me truly feel part of this great professional organisation and it always inspires and encourages when you meet so many people happy to help and support you on your career path.

AGRA not only seeks to improve and promote professional standards in genealogy through education and experience, but promotes continued professional development but provides extremely valuable networking groups. The majority of genealogists and family researchers are self employed and anyone who is self employed in any walk of life knows how isolating it can be with no daily work colleagues to just “have that coffee break” with or “grab sandwich at lunch” with. Networking groups help overcome this by bringing like-minded people together to share knowledge, practices and build strong business relationships – you never know when you may need to collaborate on a research project!.

My first networking event takes place next Friday and I am looking forward to meeting more AGRA colleagues and making new connections.

If you would like to know more about AGRA visit there website

The life of my shoemaker ancestor

Joseph Turner, was my great (x3) grandfather on my maternal grandmothers’ side. He was born in Darton, Yorkshire on 26 December 1820[1] to Joshua Turner and Sarah Turner (nee Crossley), being the sixth child of eleven (six girls and five boys). He was baptised on 4 February 1821[2] at All Saints Church, Darton, Yorkshire.

In 1881 Darton was described as a “parish and village and station on the Lancashire and Yorkshire railway, 3 miles north-west from Barnsley, 8 south-west from Wakefield and 12½ east-south-east from Huddersfield”[3]. Joseph’s father, Joshua, was a tenanted farmer[4]. When Joseph was a child there was an endowed school in Darton for both boys and girls which was a free school set up by George Beaumont in 1688[5]. There was also a Sunday school. This meant that education would have been available to Joseph as a child, although I have no documentary evidence to confirm whether he did attend school. I have searched the online catalogue for school records for Darton in this period on the West Yorkshire Archive Service website[6] and there do not appear to be any records available.

What I do know however is that Joseph did not follow in his father’s footsteps and become a farmer. It may be that his parents wanted more for Joseph (and his siblings) and he may have gained some form of education in between no doubt helping his father on the farm. In 1841, at the age of 20, Joseph is listed in the census returns as living at Anchors Yard, Knottingley, Pontefract, West Riding of Yorkshire where he is, a shoemaker’s apprentice, living with Charles Abson, Shoemaker. Given his age, he would by this time have been coming towards the end of his apprenticeship. Apprenticeships for skilled workers were 7 years, usually ending at the age of 21, thus he would have begun this apprenticeship at the age of 14 (in 1835). Apprentices worked under a master. Charles Abson is not described as a master shoemaker, however given Joseph appears to be living with him at the time the census was taken it is most probable that he was Joseph’s master.

Having searched the West Yorkshire Archive Service catalogue again in various ways, I have not been able to find a record of his apprenticeship indenture unfortunately but not surprisingly. Stamp duty was no longer payable on apprenticeship indentures and there was therefore no longer a central record for apprenticeships. It is not known therefore how Joseph chose this trade and/or his master was found.

It is unlikely this was a parish apprenticeship as they were usually entered into within the child’s own parish or a neighbouring parish (with anyone who would take them and they were not necessarily taught a trade). Knottingley is about 25 miles north east of Darton where his parents stayed until their respective deaths and not a neighbouring parish. However his father was a farmer, a notoriously fluctuate business and farmers were often found in poor law books as being in receipt of some assistance at difficult farming periods, then it is not beyond the realms of possibility, although parishes where not usually able to afford the high premiums skilled masters often demanded. Charities often then stood in and provided the financial assistance to enable those from poorer families to enter trade apprenticeships. These records would be held at West Yorkshire Archives Service. A search of their online catalogue does not find any obvious records available[7] and as I live 200 miles away I am unable to visit the archives at this time.

My instinct however is that this was more likely to be a private agreement between the parents and the Master, his parents perhaps wanting a better life for Joseph. It may be that Joseph’s parents advertised for a master to apprentice Joseph, or that they answered an advertisement place by Charles Abson, seeking an apprentice.

Knottingley is described in1881[8] as “a township and ecclesiastical parish formed from the parish of Pontefract….3 miles east-north-east from Pontefract and 171 from London, situated on the south bank of the navigable river Aire”. It was an important inland river port until 1699 when the river Aire was made navigable up to Leeds. However its main industry until well into the 20th century continued to be boat building. There remains a joint station at Knottingley for the Great Northern and the Lancashire and Yorkshire railways (after this section opened in April 1847).

In reality there was poverty, squalor and disease, with a lack of adequate drainage and sewerage facilities, and polluted and insufficient water supply. Anchor Yard where Joseph was living and learning his trade from 1835 to 1842 was a densely populated area between Aire Street and Back Lane/ The Croft, where the problems were particularly acute with open gutters, cesspools and refuse heaps.

“Knottingley also had a reputation for hard living. With over 40 liquor outlets in the town vending their wares to a motley band of ‘outsiders’ such as mariners, commercial travellers and transient visitors, all supplementing the demands of the local inhabitants, there must have been some lively times at Knottingley during the mid-nineteenth century.”[9] Aire Street, was a major shopping street, with for example, bread bakers, drapers and tailors, a currier, shoe makers, a nail maker, a basket maker and a whitesmith as well as housing the traders families and many mariners and their families.[10]

Shoemaking was an ancient local hand craft with most villages having their own shoemaker. A shoemaker was also sometimes known as a cordwainer. Shoes were “made to order” for individual customers. It gradually grew into a cottage industry with workshops or “factories” breaking the shoemaking process down and sharing the process between different people: for example, “clickers” who cut around the shoe pattern, “closers” or “binders” who sewed the uppers[11] of the shoe together, “blocker” who shaped the instep and “riveter” who attached the sole to the uppers. This was particularly the case in towns which were rapidly growing as a result of the industrial revolution.

By the time Joseph was an apprentice there was some mechanisation with machines being adapted to making boots in particular as a result of the increased demand for boots during the Napoleonic war years (1803 to 1815) however it was not until the late 1850’s when mechanisation lead to the start of shoemaking factories being opened (see later) and Joseph as an apprentice shoemaker, would have been trained in the art of making shoes and boots by hand. He would have received training in every stage of the shoemaking process:

  1. Constructing the last – the wooden shape around which the shoe would be shaped;
  2. The pattern would be made;
  3. The parts of the leather uppers would be cut out using a clicking knife[12];
  4. The leather uppers would be sewn together;
  5. The complete upper would then be moulded round the last;
  6. The leather soles and heels would be attached to the uppers[13];
  7. The complete shoe would then be finished by trimming, polishing and removing it from the last.

He would acquire knowledge of leathers, leather tanning, Fatliquoring (using fats and oils to soften leather), deglazing, washing, and preparation of leathers for dyeing dyeing, finishing, colour restoring preparations and processes; leather cleaners and polishes, leather cements and glues, removing spots and stains from leathers, shoe and leather oils, greases, and waterproofings.

The process of making a pair of shoes would normally take around twelve to fourteen hours to make a standard pair of boots, no doubt as an apprentice, at least in the beginning, it would have taken Joseph much longer. He would have been taught to use the tools of the trade including:

  • A tranchet (knife);
  • Lingels (thread);
  • Lasts (the shoe moulds);
  • Awls (piercers);
  • Shoeing horn;
  • Nails

Shoes were traditionally hand made with leather, however in the 1840’s a new material for soles of boots and shoes was available known as Gutta Percha[14]. In 1851 the material was promoted by Thomas Horlock, a shoemaker from Uxbridge[15]:

“You are now just left to the alternative to take it and turn it to your own account, or let it alone, for it will be used, and if you will not meet promptly the wishes of the public, there will be plenty who will, and you will be left with your last and stool to make whatever else you can of them. The great secret of success in life is to take advantage of circumstances as they rise, it is this that gives one man the start before another; and so you will find in the present instance, those who come first will fare best”.

This maybe a material Joseph trained with or later used to sole the shoes he made. Horlock’s book explains how to use and work with the material. However it is unlikely Joseph read this manual as I do not believe he could read or write (see later).

I am sure he would have worked very long days even more so given that he was living and working with his Master. In return for his apprenticeship, Joseph would not have been paid in monetary terms, but would have been provided a roof over his head, food to eat and clothing to wear all at the expense of his master.

When entering into an apprenticeship indenture, there were usually a number of rules relating to conduct which the apprentice agreed to obey, including for example, not to steal from their Master, not to reveal any trade secret of their Master, not to visit taverns, inns or alehouses (thus it is unlikely he took advantage of the “over 40 liquor outlets in the town”) or undertake any gambling and not to marry during the term of their apprenticeship. We know therefore that Joseph had completed his apprenticeship by October 1842 as he married Ann Lockwood on 19 October 1842 at St Edmunds church, Kellington (with Whitley).

Kellington was and still is a rural village about 3 miles east of Knottingley, described in the 1881 Kellys directory as five miles “from Whitley Bridge station on the Wakefield and Goole branch of the Lancashire and Yorkshire railway, 6 miles north-east from Pontefract, 6 miles north-west from Snaith and 6 south-west from Selby”. St Edmunds church dates back to at least 1185 and its gate posts are under a protection order having been built in 1698![16]

Ann was the youngest child of John Lockwood and Ann Lockwood (nee Shillito), having an older brother and sister. Ann was born in Kellington in 1817[17], being baptised at St Edmunds church on 27April 1817. Her father, John, was an agricultural labourer. No occupation was listed for Ann in the 1841 census before she was married.

Joseph and Ann’s marriage certificate describes Joseph as a labourer and suggests neither Joseph nor Ann could write as they have made their marks with an “X” rather than signing their names. This would suggest that Joseph did not in fact attend school as a child, neither did Ann. It is interesting that he is described as a labourer, suggesting he was an unskilled manual worker. On completing his apprenticeship he would have usually been known as a journeymen. It is likely therefore his occupation has been incorrectly described by the vicar and as it seems neither Joseph nor Ann or their witnesses (who also made their mark with an “X”) could write, then it is probable that they also could not read and were therefore unable to confirm the details on the marriage certificate were correct.

He could not be known as a master shoemaker until he had his own apprentices, a system usually regulated by guilds, although their powers had diminished by the mid 1800’s. I have not been able to find any records for any local shoemakers/cordwainers guilds, I believe the nearest to Knottingley would have been either:

  1. The Cordwainers guild of Leeds established in 1661[18]. I cannot find any other information about this guild and it is likely membership was restricted to those shoemakers actually working in Leeds.
  2. The Company of Cordwainers of the City of York dating from around 1272/3[19]. However Joseph could not have been a member of this guild as it actually ceased in 1808, according to an article in the York Press newspaper[20] ran out of money!

I have therefore not been able to establish whether Joseph was a member of a guild, however in the 1871 census he is described as a Master Cordwainer. I will come back to this later.

At the time of their marriage Joseph’s address is given as Barnsley so it may be that he moved back home briefly after he completed his apprenticeship, or again this could just be an error by the vicar: if Joseph was asked where he was from he would probably have said Barnsley as that was his home town (where he was raised). Following their marriage Joseph and Ann lived in Whitley. By 1851[21] they were living at Whitley Thorpe and Joseph is described as a shoemaker. By this time they had four children: Sarah Ann aged 8, Hannah Marie aged 6, William Lockwood aged 3 and Joshua John aged 1.

Ann’s parents lived next door to them and her cousin next door but three from them (he was a Teasel[22] grower)! There were 46 families living at Whitley Thorpe, many were farmers and agricultural workers, although other tradesman/professions/workers included: two blacksmiths, a grocer and draper, a wheelwright, a grocer and char woman, another shoemaker employing two apprentices, a school master, a school mistress, railway labourers, canal labourers, brick maker, publican, tailor, butcher and Teasel growers. There were also a number of annuitants and paupers, so quite a “mixed bag” of residents but together making up a small community providing many daily requirements! In fact genuki[23] describes Whitley Thorpe as “a farm-house in the township of Whitley, and parish of Kellington, liberty and bailiwick of Cowick and Snaith; 7 miles E. of Pontefract and 7 from Snaith.”.

This was and still is a rural area 2 miles from the Aire and Calder navigation canal at Whitley Bridge where there was (and still is) a station on the Wakefield and Goole as mentioned above.

What is unclear from the census return is whether he was working for himself or with/for another shoemaker. He was not described as a master shoemaker at this stage and does not have any apprentices living with him. There is another shoemaker, Charles Taylor, living at Whitley Thorpe who is listed as employing two apprentices. Usually a journeyman would continue working alongside a master until they created their “master-piece” and were accepted by the local guild as a master.

It appears from the census returns that Joseph and his family moved about quite a lot over the next 30 years. In the 1861 census they lived at 19 Victoria Street, Doncaster and had a further three children: Charles aged 7, Henry aged 5 and Mary Ann aged 3. Joseph is described as a shoemaker. Doncaster is one of the oldest towns in England, famous for its horse racing since 1755, and railway heritage.

Doncaster had been like all towns in the first half of the 19th century, dirty and unsanitary with many families living in squalid and overcrowded conditions. In the late 19th century however, sewers were built and a piped water supply was created. An infirmary opened in 1853 and the first free public library opened in 1869. Doncaster had good transport links for trade and travel, being located on the Great North Road (now known as the A1) and “In 1852 the Great Northern Railway opened their Locomotive and Carriage Buildings Works, where Flying Scotsman and Mallard would be designed and built many years later”[25], this brought a new prosperity to Doncaster with the engine works becoming the main employer in the town. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries industry in Doncaster was dominated by engineering.

Doncaster was also (and still is) a market town “Doncaster’s market can trace its origins right back to the Roman times”[26].

Perhaps Joseph and his family moved to Doncaster in the hope of finding more lucrative business, perhaps having a market stall to sell his shoes, or trying to specialise in shoes/boots which may have been worn by the workers of the local industries such as:

  • Welted boots – “The upper part of the shoe is shaped over the last and fastened on by sewing a leather, linen or synthetic strip (also known as the “welt”) to the inner and upper sole. As well as using a welt, stitching holds the material firmly together.”[27] These were traditionally made by a hand-welted method and it was not until 1869 that Charles Goodyear Jr invented a machine-based alternative. “In 1872 the first Goodyear welt sewing machines were introduced into England. (fn. 84) Invented in 1862, they were said to be 54 times as fast as stitching by awl and thread. (fn. 85) With this machine and the Goodyear chain stitcher it was claimed that a boot similar in quality to a hand sewn boot could be produced, and boots produced on these machines eventually superseded cheap hand-sewn and welted work. By 1899, the improved version, first introduced into Leicester by Royce Gascoigne & Co., could do in 18 seconds what had formerly been done in an hour”[28]. These are the types of boots which the local railway workers and labourers may have worn, possibly with the benefit of what today is known as the “steel toecap” in the 19th century they were more commonly known as “toe plates” usually made from steel or iron and affixed by nails.
  • The Jockey Boot
  • The Racing Jockey Boot

Interestingly their children were not described as scholars, suggesting they were not at school, of course compulsory education had not yet been introduced and it may have been in fact that Ann and his older children helped Joseph in his business. Women and children traditionally “worked” as “closers” in the shoe making industry.

Shoemaking was not a lucrative trade, shoemakers often went bankrupt. However having searched the London Gazette archives[29] I cannot find any record of Joseph being made bankrupt, but it may be that they moved about to stave off bankruptcy, most probably living hand-to-mouth. I have found it difficult to locate the actual street in which they lived, or any of the other streets mentioned in the enumerators description of the area covered in the census return of 1861. I have found Victoria Street still listed in the 1911 census but no such street appears exists today (although there is a Victoria Road). Victoria Street was said to be in the ecclesiastical district of Christ Church which consists of rows of terrace housing. Their neighbours consisted of railway labourers, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, other labourers of various sorts and a number of other boot and shoe makers. I have not been able to find Joseph in any trade directories from the period, or indeed in any period up to his death (see below).

Certainly Yorkshire was not a shoemaking industry centre. Making an income for the small local shoemaker was increasingly made more difficult as the 19th century progressed as the process became increasingly mechanised in the major shoemaking towns and cities, in particular Leicester, Northampton and London, following the invention and adaption of the sewing machine to stitch leather in 1830 in America.

“The first machines were introduced to Britain by Edwin Bostock in Stafford in October 1855. Although quickly abandoned following workers’ unrest, it was soon introduced in Northampton and London, and the first recognisably modern factories followed in 1857. These early machines were only for closing the uppers, traditionally women’s work, so other processes were still carried out in the shoemaker’s home. Over the next decades a series of further inventions ensured all processes could take place in a factory system. The Blake sole stitcher was perfected around 1864, and introduced to Stafford and Stone by 1871. Pegging and riveting machines were adopted in Britain during the 1860s. Finishing was the last process to be mechanised, but by the 1890s mechanisation was complete”[30].

However it was not until the 1920’s that most village shoemakers had changed their business to become cobblers: the difference being that a shoemaker would make new shoes from scratch whilst a cobbler would repair shoes. Joseph’s trade was therefore still in demand in the 19th century, particularly in more rural areas, but would no doubt have become increasingly challenging as his career progressed with this growth of factories, mechanisation and transport links making mass produced footwear less expensive than hand crafted. There was also the challenges faced by the industry of American imports both in machinery and actual footwear in the later part of the 19th century (about 1870 onwards).

Joseph is likely to have made his own shoe polish, ‘jet’ for boots, ‘dressing’ for leather, waterproofing ‘compositions’, leather ‘renovators’, cementing glue, shoemakers wax and other “lotions and potions” used in the shoemaking process. He may have even produced some of these to sell to boost his income. Recipes for these ‘lotions’ and ‘potions’ can be found in books such as “The Art of Boot and Shoemaking”[31] and “Handbook for Shoe and Leather Processing”[32].

By 1871 Joseph and Ann had moved back to living at Whitley Thorpe with their youngest daughter Mary Ann (nicknamed Polly) now aged 13 (their other children now making their own way). Their neighbours were some of Ann’s family – her brother William and a cousin, Robert, her parents have now deceased. Joseph is described as a Master Cordwainer for the first time. Although there is no record of him employing an apprentice in the census records, there is of course a period of ten years between them and as an apprenticeship was for 7 years it is quite possible that within that ten years he did have an apprentice enabling him to become a master cordwainer. On the other hand, this could just be an error by the enumerator because in the 1881 census Joseph is described once again simply as a shoemaker and not a master; he and Ann were by this time living alone in Kellington. Unfortunately later that year Joseph died[33], he would have been 60 years old (although his burial record gives his age as 60). He was buried at St Edmunds Church Kellington on 19 November 1881[34]. It seems sometime after his death Ann moved back to live in Whitley[35] where she died in July 1892.

The demise of the independent shoemaking industry and the rural area in which the family lived were most likely the reasons why none of Joseph’s children followed him into the trade: William was a cartman (a driver of a horse-drawn vehicle for the transporting of goods); Joshua was an agricultural labourer (also described as a shepherd[36]); Charles was a road worker/labourer for Rural district council; and Henry was a farm labourer. All their children married and had children of their own.

[1] West Yorkshire, England, Births and Baptisms, 1813-1910

[2] West Yorkshire, England, Births and Baptisms, 1813-1910

[3] Kelly’s Directory of West Riding of Yorkshire, 1881. [Part 1: County Information & Places A-K], page 284

[4] 1841 census




[8] Kelly’s Directory of West Riding of Yorkshire, 1881. [Part 1: County Information & Places A-K], page 609


[10] 1841 census

[11] The name given to the complete parts of the top of the shoe when stitched together

[12] hence the name “clicker” being given to those individuals who carried out this task in the workshops or “factories”

[13] Known as “making”

[14] “Gutta-percha, yellowish or brownish leathery material derived from the latex of certain trees in Malaysia, the South Pacific, and South America, especially Palaquium oblongifolia and, formerly, P. gutta” –

[15] “A Few Words to Journeyman Shoemakers about Gutta Percha; What it will do, and what they may do, to turn it to their advantage” published by W Strange, London 1851

[16] I have a large number of ancestors on both my maternal grandparents sides buried in this churchyard dating from the death of Joseph in 1881 (see later) to my maternal grandfather (in 2003) and maternal grandmother (in 2012). However the graves of those beyond two generations are either unmarked or have unreadable gravestones, I have searched the graveyard on a number of occasions in the past! I need to see if the church has any records/plans of the graves.

[17] Baptism record and census records

[18] The Leeds Economy Handbook, published by Leeds City Council Economic Development online at



[21] Census returns

[22] Dipsacus Fullonum – formerly widely used in textile processing, providing a natural comb for cleaning, aligning and raising the nap on fabrics, particularly wool.


[24] –






[30] History of Shoemaking in Britain – Napoleonic Wars and the Industrial Revolution:

[31] John Bedford Leno’s 1885 book reprinted by Ravenio Books 1949

[32] By Anon (original publication date not known) reprinted by Read Books Ltd 2013

[33] In November

[34] West Yorkshire, England, Deaths and Burials, 1813-1985

[35] 1891 census

[36] 1901 census

The Christmas of our ancestors

With Christmas just around the corner I have been wondering and reading about the Christmases of the past which my ancestors would have experienced. Did they really celebrate Christmas like we do today? With the commercialism of Christmas today, I doubt it very much. In fact what I have discovered is that our ‘modern’ Christmas is in fact only around 170 years old! The Victorian Christmas is often talked about and celebrated at various events, this is because it was in fact Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who essentially began the ‘trend’ of celebrating Christmas as we do today!

So was Christmas celebrated pre-Victorian Britain? And if so how?

The winter solstice is of course on the 21st December each year and is thought to have been celebrated even in the Neolithic and Bronze Age considering the layout of archaeological sites such as Stonehenge (primary axis points to the winter solstice sunset) and Newgrange (in Ireland where the primary axis points to the winter solstice sunrise).

The winter solstice was celebrated in a pagan festival celebrating fire, light and jollity, marking the end of winter and the dawning of spring when they celebrated ‘Yule’, a 12 day festival of the winter solstice, originating in or about the 4th Century. The festival incorporated many of the traditions of todays Christmas – decorating with greenery including boughs, evergreen herbs and trees and placing a yule log on the fire to burn for 12 days and nights. 

But Christmas is the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus not the winter solstice so how are they linked?

The Roman Empire were also well known for their festival ‘Saturnalia’ celebrating Saturn, the Roman God of agriculture and plenty which took place between the 17th and 23rd December with the Roman Emperor Aurelian consecrating the temple of Sol Invictus in 274 AD creating ‘Die Natalis Solis Invicti’ (the birthday of the unconquered sun) which was celebrated on the 25th December, the Roman winter solstice festival.

Perhaps this is why Pope Julius I officially declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on the 25th December a few years after 336 AD when the first Roman Christian Emporer Constantine appears to have made the first reference to the 25th December being the birthday of Jesus. There is much debate and theses surrounding the timing of the birth of Jesus and of course there are many who would deny his very existence.

Interestingly Jesus was in fact a Jew and the Jewish festival of lights, known as Hanukkah, starts on the 25th of Kislev (in the Jewish calendar this is the months which occurs at about the same time as December) and celebrates when Jews were once again able to practice their religion after many years of it not being allowed.

Whatever your beliefs, from my reading I am of the view Christmas as a festival, began as a celebration of the winter solstice and was ‘adopted’ by Christianity as the date to celebrate the birth of Jesus and the introduction of Christmas (a shortened version of Christ’s Mass).  

Whilst the early Roman celebrations saw the wealthy eating and drinking lavishly and engaging in games such as: throwing a dice to decide who should play the role of the Saturnalia monarch and masters and slaves swapping clothes; and the wealthy were also known to give gifts to the poor to help them through the hardship of the winter season, Christmas was not a holiday as today, it was purely a religious day and not celebrated as it is today. Singing and Carols have therefore always been associated with Christmas.

Mince pies were introduced in Tudor times and the plum porridge was a medieval creation adapted by the Victorians to what we know today as Christmas pudding. Through the centuries, the practice of giving presents began to develop but traditionally took place on new years day gradually moving to the 25th December with Father Christmas first appearing in England in the early 17th century, although initially he was associated with joviality and drunkenness, it was not until the Victorians re-invented him that he became synonymous with gift giving as was the traditional Saint Nicholas from which he originated, who was known for the care of children, generosity, and the giving of gifts.

The union of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert saw the introduction of the ‘modern’ Christmas. Prince Albert was German and brought with him many of the traditional German traditions of pagan decent. Ultimately it was a photograph in the Illustrated London News in 1848 of the royals stood in front of a decorated tree which began the new trend of decorating trees at Christmas, hence the birth of the Christmas tree in the history of the English Christmas. 

In 1979 at the Scottish Record Office the first known Christmas card to have been sent was found. It had been sent by Michael Maier to James I of England and his son Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales in 1611. However Christmas cards were first designed for commercial use in 1843, commissioned by Sir Henry Cole (who had three years earlier introduced the penny post) and illustrated by John Callcott Horsley. 

Christmas crackers were, it is said, invented by Tom Smith, a confectioner of London, in 1847 when he was ‘re-inventing his ‘bon-bon’ sweets. The sweets were replaced by a trinket: fans, jewellery and other substantial items and later, his son, Walter Smith, introduced the paper hat, gift and varied designs to distinguish their brand from other rival brands which had sprung up. 

Eating turkey as Christmas was also introduced by the Victorians. Although they were expensive compared to the more usual bird of choice, goose, the Turkey was larger and able to feed more mouths so became increasingly popular for large entertaining such as Christmas family gatherings. Families would have needed to save up to buy the Christmas Turkey, even in the 1930’s the cost of a Turkey would have been the average persons weekly wage!

Today our beloved Turkey is much more affordable, becoming more widely available and affordable in the 1950’s. Although I know many people today have goose, duck, five bird roast and other alternatives (including meat free!) so maybe with the popularisation of turkey being available all year round, this is one tradition which may fall by the way side.

Can you imagine a year without Christmas? Well, during the civil war and commonwealth years (1640 to 1660) Christmas was banned by Oliver Cromwell (Lord Protector of the Republic of England) who, along with his Puritan colleagues, saw such festivities as ‘wasteful’. I am sure it did continue to be celebrated in private though by none Puritans. 

Christmas must have been a difficult period in the first and second world wars both for those on the battlefields and their loved ones at home. Of course I’m sure we’ve all heard about the Christmas Truce on 25th December 1914 during World War 1 and the infamous football match on the front line!

This is a Christmas card sent by my Nanna to my Grandad during the Second World War, I am not sure which year but he was called up for service on 16th July 1942. They had only been married 5 years and had a 5 year old daughter. At least he was not on the frontline due to health issues.

This Christmas, as I open my presents, eat my turkey, pull my cracker, eat my Christmas pudding, my thoughts are with those less fortunate then myself and my family and with all those loved ones who cannot be together at Christmas and all those much harsher Christmases my ancestors will have endured.

What dates do we need to know?

Whether you are a hobbyist or professional genealogist there are key dates when events and government interventions affected the type of and content of those research documents which provide the basis of any family tree research: parish registers, census records and civil registration records.

Having completed the first 6 lectures of the IHGS Higher certificate in Genealogy, I have opted to take the Elementary Level exam to gain my first official qualification in genealogy and after revision in readiness for the exam my head is swimming with these key dates. So what are they?

Parish Registers

1537 Parish registers first “officially” introduced

1597 Bishops Transcripts of parish registers introduced

1641 – 1660 Civil War and Interregnum including:

1653 Marriage Act – marriage by Banns only

1657 Marriage Act – marriage licences restored

1666 Burial in Woollen Act

1694 Marriages, Births and Deaths Tax – to 1706

1752 Change from Julian Calendar to Gregorian Calendar

1754 Lord Hardwick’s Marriage Act – separate marriage registers

1765 Dade Registers

1783 The Stamp Act – repealed 1794

1812 Rose’s Act – separate birth and burial registers and age at death to be recorded in burial registers

Civil Registration 

1837 Civil Registration introduced – records of the Home Office

1874 Legal penalties introduced for none registration of births

1911 Mothers maiden name to be included in the GRO birth index

1912 Both surnames of spouses to be included in the GRO Marriage index

1927 Adopted Children Register

1927 Still birth register introduced – Births and Deaths Registration Act

1984 GRO began to produce annual indexes rather than quarterly indexes

Parish registers continue to exist today for baptisms and burials, however with the GRO records are now the main source of information for births and deaths as they are the legally required records.

Census Records

1801 First decennial census introduced (numeric only)

1841 First decennial census to include Name, age (rounded down to nearest 5), occupation, whether born in current county

1851 Also included relation to head of household, marital status and place of birth. Rounding of ages dropped

1861 Census records become the responsibility of the General Register Office (GRO). includes economic status

1871 Includes whether imbecile, idiot or lunatic

1881 Includes language spoken (in Scotland)

1891 Includes language spoken (in Wales), whether employer, employee or independent

1901 Includes number of rooms (if less than 5), whether employer, worker, work from home or not

1911 First census where the household schedules are the primary census returns available to the public and the industry/service with which the worker is connected, how long married, how many children born, how many still living and how many have died, and whether any infirmity

There is a 100 years restriction rule in the release of census records and therefore the 1921 census records will be release in 2022.


IHGS course progress

Well, it is now 6 months since I signed up for the IHGS Higher Certificate in Genealogy and I have completed the first 6 lectures…that’s 1/4 way through the course! I am really enjoying the course although sometimes I really wish I had more time to dedicate to it. With two young children and the summer school holidays, my study for 8 weeks was certainly cut short!

I have now covered the elementary genealogy topics:

  • Introduction to family history
  • Family records
  • Census records
  • Civil registration
  • Parish registers
  • Parish records

I am very pleased with my progress, both in terms of being on target to complete the course in 2 years and the marks I have attained. I would certainly say the most challenging lecture so far was parish records. Actually getting the time to visit the local archives to carry out the research necessary to complete the assignments was a challenge in itself!  But I got there and found attending the archives a very interesting and rewarding exercise. Everyone at the local archives were friendly and helpful and I felt very welcomed.

Some may say this is very brave of me but I have provided links below to some of my course work which discuss some of the topics covered:

Census records

Parish registers

Parish records

It is now an exciting time, having finally gained the confidence to officially launch this new business venture and start to put together my application for AGRA associate membership.
I have received my first family history commission and started work on the next set of lectures, firstly Wills and Probate followed by Palaeography.

A further update on my course progress will follow soon!


When did we become obsessed with time?

So today is the day we put the clocks back and marks the start of the shorter days of winter. But this is a relatively new phenomenon as is standardised time and what changes in time keeping did our ancestors experience?

From Ancient Egyptian obelisks dating back to around 3500BC and sundials to around 1500BC the latest digital ‘gadgets’ of today, to the latest time has always been measured in one way or another. But I doubt our ancestors were so aware of time as we are today.

Until the mid to late 19th century, time was set locally rather than nationally or internationally. Our ancestors largely kept time by the sun – an organic system known as local mean time. How did this work? In each town across the country the time of day was decided, firstly, by consulting a sun dial and then by the creation of local time.

With the introduction and development of the railways there came a need to standardise time and the UK was the first country to set a standard time when it established the Greenwich Mean Time standard in the 1840s (initially known as “railway time”). As Greenwich, due to the presence of the Royal Observatory, was the national centre for time and had been since 1675, the choice was obvious. .

Most railways used this time by 1847 however our ancestors day to day life was still governed by local mean time and so arose the situation where the town railway station h kept one time, and the town itself kept another! Very confusing! And by 1845 railway timetables had to point out that there was a difference between “town” time and “railway” time. Some stations even had two clocks, one for local time and one for railway time!

Clearly the situation could not last and by 1855, most public clocks in Britain were set to GMT, although some had two minute hands, one for local time and one for GMT. However it was not until 2 August 1880 that GMT was adopted officially by Parliament

I wonder how this affected our ancestors lives?

Would it have made their lives easier? It would have certainly made travel easier and time less confusing! Was this the beginning of our ‘obsession’ with time?

What do you think?




The future starts here

Whilst I  started writing my own family history and  set up this website to run a business in genealogy, I came to the conclusion that the only way to progress any career in this field is to get that all important qualification. So I did some research into courses – what was available, the costs, how long it would take, home study or institute study, the qualification to be attained and its acceptance by professional associations.

With two preschool children to look after my ‘free’ time is precious and I wanted something that would fit around the children and of course my home with my husband, who has been very supportive in my venture. I wanted a home study course which was not time limited and provided a suitable qualification to enable me to join AGRA (Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives).

After reading reviews of various courses in April 2018’s edition of “Who Do You Think Yo are?” magazine I made my decision, spoke to my husband about the cost, which had a monthly payment option – perfect, manageable!

So, I signed up! I chose Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies Correspondence Course in Genealogy which will lead me to a Higher Certificate in Genealogy and hopefully onto a Diploma in Genealogy. I only signed up on 8th April but have already submitted and had my first assignment marked. It is some time since I did any academic work and therefore was quite nervous as I submitted the completed assignment and even more nervous when I received the email with my first assessment mark. I have to say it was with relief that I had obtained an excellent mark, an “A”. A great start to my studies, lets hope I can keep it up.

Studying whilst being a full time mum of a three and a half year old and a 19 month old is not going to be easy, but with the eldest in nursery/pre-school three days a week and the youngest still having a daytime nap (and praying that continues…..), I have my daytime window of opportunity along with evenings and weekends. I am happy to say I am not finding studying as hard as I thought I might….well at least so far, no doubt it may get harder! The beauty is the course can take me as long as I need, but I am keen to get going on my new career!

Like many careers, to get ahead, as well as obtaining a qualification, I need to build up a portfolio to be able to apply for membership to one AGRA. My business therefore starts here and I am looking for willing “guinea pigs” to start building up that portfolio.

So if you’re interested why not contact me, its not very often we get anything from free in this life.

Writing my Family History

I have now completed draft mini biographies of maternal grandfather and his direct ancestors back to my great (x3) grandfather, which put together form the beginnings of my family history. I say ‘drafts’ as these are by no means the final article! There is further information and documentation to obtain and I am sure there is more out their to be found on the lives of those individuals. I will blog some extracts  to provide taster.

You may be wondering how I started out with my research; what documents I had and how I came about them in order to be able to even start to write an ancestors mini biography.

Well I began researching my family tree a number of years ago and found my great, great grandparents with relative ease, particularly on my paternal side and maternal grandfathers’ side. My maternal grandmothers’ side was not so easy. Initially my research was conducted by speaking to family members and subscribing to I have since also subscribed to and the Genealogist as well. I have also used (trial version) and

I started by setting out myself and my parents who are both still living and all their essential information (birth, marriage) are within my own knowledge. I was also lucky enough to know both my maternal grandparents and my paternal grandmother until I was into my late 20’s. I therefore knew their essential information in terms of birth and death. My paternal grandfather died the year before I was born, however his grave is in the local churchyard where I grew up and I knew his date of birth and death. What I did not know, were the dates of my grandparents respective marriages. I don’t ever remember enquiring about my paternal grandparents’ marriage but I do remember enquiring about my maternal grandparents’ marriage which they were always elusive about. That intrigued me. I also knew that my maternal great grandfather never knew his father and this was a mystery which I wanted to pursue.

Save for my maternal grandmothers family, I have managed to trace my direct ancestors back for several generations, potentially in some lines back to the 13th century although I have not gone about corroborating any of that information as yet, it is largely information gained from other ancestry trees so is very questionable at this stage.

There are some dates of births, marriage and deaths for which I only have the details from the indexes. Some of those gaps were filled in from the 1939 Register (dates of birth) although these should of course be used with some caution and where I have been unable to find copies of documents online the next step would be to purchase copy documents from the General Register Office. At this stage I have not gone that far due to the number of dates I have missing and therefore the cost.

My maternal family required more research. What I knew before starting my research, from my grandfather, was that his family originated from Cambridgeshire, it was his grandfather who moved to Yorkshire, closely followed by all but two of his siblings and his mother. I knew something of the life of my great grandfather who was a publican. My mother and particularly my Aunt and great maternal Aunt, have able to provide some details of my great grandfather’s life although he died before either my mum or aunt were born.

As less was known about my maternal ancestors in some cases I used wider search details, such as searching siblings which often provided more information for my pedigree ancestors. I will detail these searches when I come to those ancestors below.

I knew my grandfather’s basic details save for his date of marriage to my grandmother, Mary. It was only when my maternal grandmother died and my mother was looking through her papers that their marriage certificate was found. It must have caused a bit of a scandal at the time and now we know why it was never mentioned, my grandmother was six months pregnant with my maternal aunt when they were married!
We also found my maternal grandparents birth certificates amongst the papers. There was also the birth certificate, death certificate and marriage certificate for my maternal grandmothers’ father. At this stage the rest of my research has been conducted and information gathered online from a variety of websites.

One thing I have learnt is that research into your ancestry will never be complete. There is always more to find. New records are being released all the time, new resources are made available and who know what I will when I get the time to attend the various record offices and search physical archives. Its exciting!

So my research continues, my family history writing continues as I expand on the Huddlestone ancestors and start write about my other ancestors – the Oldfield family (my maternal grandmother); the Richardson family (my paternal grandfather) and the Sayner family (my paternal grandmother); and I am sure one day my writings will expand beyond these direct ancestors! You never know it may all even end up in a book one day!