Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘genealogy’ Category

Wow the Open University is 50 years old today!

This snuck up on me! Fifty years ago, today, the Open University received its Royal Charter. I’m a huge fan, and thought I’d reflect a little on the extra chances the OU gave me. The OU is a much venerated UK university, that set out from the start to support part-time distance learning at home, giving people a chance who might otherwise be unable to study at university level.

The OU gave me a second chance after I dropped out of my science PhD, after falling seriously ill with a MS-like illness at just 22. Once I was finally diagnosed properly and started life saving chemotherapy treatment it made me nauseous and vomit for up to 8 hours every day, every single day, for years. I had to try something to take my mind off it, so started studying part-time with the Open University. The OU support staff thought I was too disabled to study with them by this time, but I tried. When I went to St Andrews University in 1990 I had wanted to study two subjects: Scottish history and computer science. But I could only do one, and was qualified for the latter, so stuck with that. But history – and especially Scottish history – was unfinished business for me. Now was my chance!

My first course in 1998 saw me jump straight in to second year history, and a course on Culture and Belief in Europe 1450-1600. Renaissance history basically. I loved it! It was phenomenally hard. I’d skipped the foundation year that teaches you to write academic essays, and analyse historical sources, and do art history and literature. So I didn’t make things easy for myself. Didn’t get the best course result, because of these circumstances. But oh it was brilliant. It also made me fall in love with Venice, and I went there later that year for the first time.

The next year I studied a course on family and community history. Yes that was good for me, a lifelong genealogist! I was able to use my family history stories in the essays for it. So, for example, I wrote an essay looking at my 3xg-granddad John Usher Somner running a rather posh boarding house in West End Edinburgh in 1871. At the other extreme I analysed the poor relief records for a 4xg-granddad John Hall, in 1860s Hawick, From my husband’s family I did a mini project looking at the extent of interbreeding (yes there was a lot!) in two Suffolk parishes where his ancestors lived. And for my final big end of year project I analysed Coldingham baptismal witnesses.

By this point I was well on my way to a history degree, and with credit transfer from my Computer Science BSc(Hons) I had extra points to shorten the amount I needed to study. But I took a big swerve in my final year, veering towards classical studies, with two courses. The first looked at the Roman Empire, particularly regarding power and identity. That was fascinating. Archaeology, mixed with written sources, visual images of gravestones and stuff, from all over the Roman Empire. I loved that. At the same time I studied a course on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which combined the literary works with the archaeology of Troy. Which I had a family connection with. That 3xg-granddad John Usher Somner was a nephew by marriage of Charles Maclaren, first editor of The Scotsman newspaper, who first pinpointed Hisarlik as the likely location of Troy.

Throughout my OU studies I studied from home, using course materials – published books, course books written by the course team, handouts, etc. – sent to me in regular chunky postal packages. This was supplemented by face to face tutorials, but for much of the 3 years I was too ill to attend those, even the ones nearby in Dundee (I lived in Cupar at this time). I was also too deaf at this time from my neurological disease, so couldn’t chat to a tutor by phone. So I was extremely isolated. But the course materials were almost all superb. The course books, written by the course teams, particularly wowed me. These were written collaboratively, to a very high standard. And were much better quality, in overall terms, than many science lectures I’d attended as an undergraduate student at St Andrews. In addition I had contact with other students through the FirstClass online computer networking system, which made me feel less isolated, and helped build up a community. 20-odd years on, long after the demise of FirstClass, I’m still in touch with OU friends I made then. The OU supported disabled students brilliantly, long before the Disabled Students Allowance started, and long before many other universities made any kind of provision.

I studied with the OU between 1998 and 2000, and by the end of my classical studies courses I had enough credits to earn a BA(Hons), joint history and classical studies. This then provided the foundation on which I studied further at Dundee, doing a taught MPhil and a PhD, both part-time, both in history (mainly Scottish). My OU degree was very well regarded by the lecturers at Dundee, and they particularly valued how it showed independent learning.

In more recent years funding changes by the UK government have slashed revenue to the Open University, and reduced the financial support for part-timers to extremely low levels. This is especially the case in England, where it is very unaffordable now to study with the OU, especially if, like I was, you already have a first degree. But I was retraining, in a totally different subject area, so needed a second chance. And many people are keen to study lifelong. The OU is at great risk now, but I will always be grateful to it for the support it gave me. And it’s an institution that should be very proud.

Read Full Post »

Mainly as a prompt for myself, to encourage me to get it all done, I thought I’d blog about some writing projects I want to finish off in the next year.

First up is a rewrite of a conference talk, which I want to submit in print to a new academic journal. It’s almost finished. I just need to tidy up the last few bits. And some sections are time, or more pertinently date, critical. So I need to get on with it. That should be done soon.

Secondly I have a brand new journal paper combining urban history and book history, the topics of my PG Masters and PhD. It needs more work, but I’m really pleased with it as it stands. I think it’s one of the strongest pieces I’ve written, and it’s a topic that probably only I could do, given my combined background. The trickiest bits are sorting out illustrations for two case studies. For the first, a town, I can probably work from a published town plan, if I can pick a suitable one, and get permission to use it. The other case study, a regional case study, is possibly going to need a new map. I’m not good at drawing maps! So I’m still pondering what to do re that. It definitely needs some kind of cartographic illustration, to explain unfamiliar geography to the reader. But if I can crack the mapping issues I ought to be able to submit this journal paper in the first quarter of 2018.

Slightly more straightforward is developing an already accepted manuscript publishing proposal for the Scottish History Society. This concerns a poem from the 17th century, which I have transcribed, and will be published in annotated form. The key work to do is to add numerous annotations and expand the introductory essay. Annotations will be added for people’s names, places, events, anything else needing explaining. This should be largely straightforward, but will be somewhat time consuming, and may hit tricky patches. The introductory essay needs more on the possible provenance of the poem and its mystery writer. I may need to consult an academic specialist on poetry of this period for that. I expect that I can finish this by summer 2018, but have a much longer deadline option available if need be.

I also have a short journal paper in progress, concerning a 16th century poet ancestor of mine, a royal courtier, whose family history as published eg in DNB is very wrong. I thought I might write a note putting on record a corrected version, based on my research. This is in progress, in Scrivener on my iPad, but isn’t urgent to finish. It can wait until all the more important and heftier items are out of the way. So while it might be nice to submit it in 2018, in practice it may be done later. Not least because of how ill I am, with a severely disabling MS-like illness.

I have other academic writing projects in the air, but for most I need to do more research in primary source materials, i.e. documents, first.

As well as the academic writing projects I have two fun recreational things that I hope to submit in 2018. I am writing a number of interactive fiction (IF) or text adventure games in Inform 7. And I may be ready to submit two of them to IF competitions in 2018. One of my games, a 15th century set game about the Border Reivers, is about 80% finished at the moment. I need to add further refinements, and improve interactivity, and it still needs thoroughly playtesting. But that could easily be completed well in advance of the 2018 IFComp, the main annual competition for interactive fiction games that takes place each autumn. The other historical game I’m writing, about mathematician John Napier and a treasure hunt he was employed on for my ancestor Sir Robert Logan of Restalrig, around 1590 or so, is much earlier in development. But I expect I should be able to get an opening portion ready to submit for IntroComp, for the opening sections of games, if that competition runs again in 2018, most likely in the summer.

So those are my writing goals. Submit two journal papers, complete another already accepted publishing piece, and submit two interactive fiction games to competitions in 2018, all going well. Let’s see what happens!

Read Full Post »

I’ve been spending much time in the last week in the 17th century, transcribing a lengthy poem about a corrupt court judge at Melrose in the 1680s. Doing that reminded me of the talk I gave in September 2013, at the conference of the Economic and Social History Society of Scotland, held in Inverness. I thought it would be nice if I put the PowerPoint slides from that online, so have done that – link here. It was a 20-minute talk, as is usual for academic conferences, so I was limited in how much I could say. But I covered a lot in the time allowed.

My talk was titled “Glimpses into a time of turmoil: examining the regality court records of Melrose, Roxburghshire, 1657-1706”, and was based on the dissertation for my taught MPhil degree at Dundee. I studied the voluminous local court records for Melrose regality, and had a fantastic time. I have ancestral connections in Melrose, going back to this period, and lived there myself for part of my childhood. And as a disabled student it was a perfect project: the records are largely transcribed already, so I could work on them at home, as able to.

In the process of the research I built up a gigantic database of court cases, pursuers and defenders. The index of people’s names recorded is online already, as part of my Melrose one-place study. There were probably only about 2500 people living within the court’s jurisdiction at this time, making the vast numbers of people recorded as using the court quite astonishing.

The slides don’t record everything I said in the Inverness talk though. For example there’s a detailed slide of the many debts murder accused John Halliwall weaver in Gattonside left in 1673 after escaping prison before his trial. I explained more about Halliwall’s story verbally on the day, not on the slides. He escaped on horseback, after a court officer let him out of jail to help him sell ale!

I’ve also spoken about the 17th century court records to the local historical society in Melrose, many years ago, in a well attended talk in the town.

There are so many other stories I want to share about the Melrose community from these records. For example a g… uncle of mine was judge of the court from 1657 to 1665. Well he was, until he was charged with “striking and hurteing of Robert Mott, servitor to John Bowar, portioner of Eildoune”. His own court fined him £10, and he lost his job. But that, and more, is for another day!

Read Full Post »

As a family historian with some English connections I was interested in the 1939 English and Welsh Register which went online recently at FindMyPast. But having seen the 1939 Register entries for my Scottish ancestors I didn’t expect to find anything terribly new or exciting. So I wasn’t even sure if I’d check it out promptly. But sure enough I did, being still up as the site went live shortly after midnight on Monday 2nd November 2015.

Sadly the site was very flaky then, with lots of pages failing to load. I was getting an awful lot of error messages, at various points e.g. initial search results, trying to preview an entry, trying to buy credits/unlock an entry, trying to view an image. Usually reloading one or more times sorted it out though. And I don’t seem to have inadvertently spent my credits twice. Fortunately site responsiveness improved over the coming days, and it’s much more stable now, but that wasn’t a good way to launch a website, especially when people were paying pay-as-you-go to access the information.

The positive thing is that after battling through the page loading problems I was very surprised by how much useful information I got in this. Examples include:

  • Finding my great-grandfather in Leeds, getting valuable info on him. He was estranged from my granddad so we didn’t really know anything about him circa 1939, even if he was still alive. Now we have an occupation, address, the fact his second wife was still alive, and this has helped me to hopefully track down his death a few years later.
  • Learning that my husband’s great-grandparents on a farm had 2 land girls staying with them.
  • Discovering that my husband’s Norfolk grandfather was in the local fire brigade in 1939, just like my granddad in southern Scotland.
  • Finding my other Yorkshire great-grandfather with what looks like wife #3, and then using that info to finally trace their marriage record in FreeBMD.

I was also impressed by how full the pages are. Even with lots of entries closed (like my Dad’s, aunt’s, and my husband’s uncle – all still living, in their 80s) you get names of lots of neighbours at the time. Which is really nice. I emailed the relevant pages to my octogenarian relatives, so they can see some neighbour names that might bring back memories for them.

On the downside I still can’t find my husband’s paternal grandparents in the 1939 Register. Goodness only knows quite how they’ve been recorded and/or transcribed! Maybe I’ll find them in future though.

But yes, pleased with what I found. Far more useful than I thought it would be – I didn’t honestly expect it to tell me anything new or terribly interesting. I found the information I got worth the price I paid to unlock the households, but that’s mainly because of unexpected information I found. Getting birth dates for relatives is great, but I’m not sure that would have been enough for me. It’s the extra detail, like war service information and some unexpected genealogical clues, that really helped.

Having said that, I’m not sure that the 1939 Register is being that well promoted by FindMyPast. In particular they aren’t making clear to genealogists that people born after 1915 who are not known by the Register authorities to have died cannot be searched for in the site. There are an *awful* lot of very experienced genealogists out there who have tried to find, for example, parents or other fairly recent relatives in the new database. These people would have been in the 1939 Register, but are too young to be released this time. But the information in the FindMyPast help pages isn’t clear about this at all, not explaining in simple terms that these people cannot be searched for online at the moment.

I’m also not convinced that FindMyPast appreciate just how useful the information in the right pages can be for genealogists. I’ve found references to local war service – e.g. land girls, fire brigade, and air wardens – on every single page I looked at. In some rural areas there were numerous entries in that column. Two of my husband’s ancestral households had useful information there. As a family historian that’s just the type of detail that adds colour to the family story. But sometimes it’s cropped too severely, and cannot be read properly as a result. I think this information is one of the strengths of this register, isn’t as rare as FindMyPast think, and should be better supported via the website.

So some concerns still. I’m also not quite sure how useful this site will be to me as a one-name studier. I’m researching the surname Cavers, and it’s not clear yet how useful it would be to me to extract references to that name (77 or so). Even using the free preview information I’m not sure it would tell me that much new, with so many redacted child/recent entries. And it’s not cost-effective for me with the current pricing structure to unlock all those households. So yes, not sure. I think the site can be great for genealogy, but more personal family history than one-name studies. One-place studies may be different, though my two are in Scotland, so I can’t use this site for those. Time will tell!

EDIT: As a late postscript to the post, after I posted this earlier today the death certificate of my Leeds great-granddad arrived in the post. It reveals that he had more children, with wife #2, the wife who refused to take care of the older children of his first marriage, which meant those children had to go into a home, and broke off all contact with their father. So my Dad now has a new aunt and uncle to add details of to the family tree, as well as lots of cousins. We may even be able to get in touch with living descendants. I’ve been researching my family tree for 30+ years, and it’s remarkable to make such a new discovery, so close to my generation, after all this time. I wouldn’t have been able to trace my great-granddad’s death reliably, were it not for the 1939 Register going online, letting me find him, and be sure it was him with the right birthdate (day, month and year). And because that gave me his address, which was also where he died in 1946, I could confidently link things up. Magic!

Read Full Post »

I’m a long-time member of the Guild of One-Name Studies (GOONS), which is a society for people who are researching specific surnames, all holders, rather than just their own family trees. My own GOONS surname is Cavers, which is one of my ancestral surnames.

The Guild holds a number of seminars and an annual conference, but these are typically in the south of England, so far too far away from me. So it was nice that the new regional rep for southern Scotland (I sneak into that, even though I think I live in the north!) Lorna Kinnaird was keen to hold regional meetings for us. On the downside those in the past have been in Glasgow or Edinburgh, which with my MS-like illness is too far for me to manage now. The long journey there would drain me, and I wouldn’t be in a fit state for the meeting, or the journey back. So I jumped at the chance to attend a rare northerly meeting, in Perth.

The meeting was held at the AK Bell Library in Perth, which I know well, having been to the archives there a lot during my part-time history PhD and also Research Assistant job for Dundee University’s history department. The meeting was to run from 10am until 4pm. I knew I couldn’t manage the whole thing, with my MS-like illness, and with the final timetable I would be there for the pre-lunch session only. But that worked out well.

Lorna gave a good opening introduction, which raised lots of interesting points, before Roger Moult took over, speaking about researching First World War Soldiers, in Britain in particular. This was very interesting. I’d done quite a lot of research into these myself, though generally relying on resources available online. It was useful to learn more details about the different types of records that survive, their strengths and weaknesses, and which can be accessed remotely, and which must be researched at The National Archives at Kew.

After a break for tea and coffee we were then given a tour, by Nicola Cowmeadow and Colin Proudfoot, of the library’s local studies collection. As I said earlier I know the archives section of this library well. I had not used the local studies section before though, so this was eye opening for me, and I must return in future to investigate more.

The final item before lunch was me talking, about my Cavers one-name study. This was a 20 minute talk, and seemed to be well received. I’ve been researching my one-name study for nearly 30 years, and wanted to talk about how it has evolved over time, and different techniques I use, as well as newer things, like moving into social networking and DNA tests. This was followed by a lively discussion about some of the issues that I had raised, such as legacy concerns, data preservation, whether to use a genealogy package or a spreadsheet or both, and the pros and cons of different DNA testing companies.

In the afternoon the group was to be given a tour of the archives, and have some personal research time there. I had to leave before that, but I am very glad that I was there for the time I was. I was particularly impressed by the engaged questioning manner of the group members, which meant that we had lively and informative discussions, both during talks and afterwards, and many useful ideas were shared. I do hope to get to a future regional meeting, and would definitely recommend that other GOONS members attend their regional meetings where these are available.

Read Full Post »