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Starting out in genealogy by Dr Kathryn Senior

4 Paper records I

Paper records and written family records

The family records that contain useful genealogical information that I have come across most often in my own researches include things like the family bible, original birth, marriage and death certificates, funeral cards, obituaries and other newspaper cuttings, photographs, postcards and letters, will copies, and maybe notebooks or address books. Deeds to property seem to be held more rarely, and fuller records such as scrapbooks, diaries, school records and books, business or bank records and portraits are a real find.

The family bible

Family bibles seem to be a relatively common thing for families to have owned in the 19th and early 20th century; even many poorer families had one. Often, the inside front and back covers were used to record family information – usually the births of children. In my own family, my great grandmother Lucy Strangward bought a bible when she married and on the first empty page, just inside the front cover, wrote down the names and birthdates of each of her children. She seems to have done this at, or shortly after the births, and so this record of my grandmother and her siblings is an accurate and personal record. Unfortunately, I do not own the bible; it passed to my great grandmother’s youngest child Ernest Strangward, and then to his son Leslie, who died last year. The trouble with family records is that they can’t be easily shared out between the growing number of descendants who are interested in their family history and heritage.

In another family bible, one that originally belonged to my paternal great grandmother Caroline Senior, the entries give the names of her children, their birthdates, and even the weekday and time of day they were born. I now have a photocopy of both records, and the information from them has proved reliable as well as interesting and useful. However, it is possible that family bibles can mislead. A well meaning elderly family member, on discovering an old bible, may decide to use it as a family bible and write into it details of herself and her siblings, parents and beyond. As with any information recorded years later, this can introduce inaccuracies, and so family bible entries should be corroborated by other information sources where possible.

Postcards and letters

None of my ancestors have been writers, which is ironic as this is how I earn my living, and is an activity that I do everyday for pleasure. And when I say they weren’t writers, I mean they didn’t ever seem to put pen to paper. No letters, no diaries, no notebooks, almost nothing has survived.

I do have two things that are related to World War I, one a Christmas card and one a small embroidered post card. My grandfather, Thomas William Senior fought in World War I from 1915, and survived, unscathed. A second cousin of mine, met through the family history research I have been doing, brought over a collection of her own family muniments, one of which was a WWI Christmas card, sent by my grandfather to his mother, Caroline Senior. It is dated 1918, and has just one word written by him in pencil – "Willie". Well, at least the censor must have been happy… but my cousin did give it to me, so that it has now become one of my family records.

The embroidered post card was probably sent by one of my great uncles to my great grandmother Lucy Strangward. It is also dated 1918, and has another very short notation – "To Nan". We do not have one of the postcards sent to her by my great uncle Oliver Strangward, who was killed in April 1917, but my mother remembers that they used to be in her mother’s possession. These would have been far more interesting, but no-one knows what has happened to them. Apparently, Oliver had devised a code with his mother before he enlisted, and he sent her a postcard that told the family that he had been sent to Mesopotamia.


Address books, birthday books

Old address books, Christmas card lists and birthday books are very useful for verifying dates of birth and places where ancestors lived at different times. Most people keep such things, but they do tend to be thrown away when out of date. In my own family research I have made some use of a close relative’s address book and a distant relative’s birthday book.

My aunt kept the address book of my grandmother, Ethel Amelia Senior, nee Frost. When we began to research our Frost ancestors, it was clear that Ethel Amelia had not been very forthcoming about her family background. My aunt remembered that her mother did visit a cousin called Ethel Brimblecombe, and she gave me the address of Mrs Brimblecombe from the book.

I didn’t hold out much hope, as this book was nearly 40 years old, but I looked up the name the BT directory search site on the internet, and surprisingly, an E. Brimblecombe was still living at the same address. I phoned her and my brother and I went to visit her shortly afterwards. We had a lovely couple of hours chatting with a very pleasant 90-year old and were struck by how much she looked like my grandmother.

By the time of our visit, we had made quite good progress with our research on this line and we knew that our great great grandmother, Mary Ann Frost had first of all had three of her children out of wedlock and brought them up as a single mother in Crigglestone in the 1860s and 1870s.

Our great grandfather was one of these children, and so kept the name Frost. Subsequently, she married John Darwell and moved to Crofton, another village near Wakefield. As Mrs Darwell, she then had another group of children. We told Mrs Brimblecombe this, and she amazed us by saying that she could remember visiting ‘Granny Darwell’ when she was a very small child.

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