Connections

Through researching my family tree, I’ve discovered some new connections to the land.

It’s not just that I’ve found ancestors in new parts of the country, although that certainly has a bearing on things, it’s more that I have a reinforced sense of a long personal connection to the land, this land, where my ancestors spent their entire lives living and working. A connection so many of us seem to have lost these days. I’m following the threads of folk who scraped a living in villages in Norfolk or Essex or Hampshire, frequently living in poverty or at the very least on the very edges of it. A hard life for most of them. Widows with no way of supporting themselves other than plaiting ‘straw dollies’ for a few pence, labourers in their seventies still having to endure hard physical graft to stay out of the workhouse (where they would have had to work even harder, for even less reward). People for whom starvation would have been a very real threat. Even comparatively healthy families would have relied on all the womenfolk trying to bring a few extra pennies into the household.

Some of these connections are selective – I can reject a connection I’m uncomfortable with, such as through industrial work in towns or cities which is something I have little experience of, and no love of in the first place, but I cannot claim a connection that isn’t there in the first place.

And within this experience, there is the time element – both how long ago these events were, but also how long they lasted, which contributes to the intensity of this connection for me.

These folk weren’t just the very poorest, of course. Amongst my ancestors there are also a wide range of craftsmen and women such as weavers, shoemakers, and printers, but also other poor labourers such as shop assistants, launderesses, servants, stokers, coal porters, cable hands…the list goes on and on. Not that there’s anything special about my family tree – everyone has these folk in their past.

I think – I know – some people just look for royalty or knights in armour when they research their trees. They dream of having the right to a coat of arms, or bragging rights to a famous name. None of us come into it completely open to what we find. We all have some expectations – to push our ‘lines’ back as far as we can, for example, or discover connections to the famous. Personally, I’m delighted to find my ancestors were the urban and rural poor. I don’t want to find the rich and privileged in my tree. Is that inverse snobbery? Perhaps.

But it’s the connection to the land I’m referring to here. I’ve always felt a strong personal connection to the land, to the physical world, and every census entry or marriage certificate I come across showing my ancestors earning their living that way seems to strengthen my own connections as well as a sense of continuity with my forebears.

Sickness and Diseases

I’ve mentioned that I’ve been researching my family tree, and a few days ago I was looking for details of one of my ancestors who lived in what was then a small village just outside Norwich. Looking on the parish records not only did I find the entry for his burial, but then noticed that the rector at that time had begun noting down what each person had died of. It was by no means complete, though, because he had added these notes for a year or so and then just stopped. Whether he’d got fed up with it or been told to stop for some reason, I obviously have no idea. But as I glanced through them, I became fascinated by them. I felt they left quite a lot of information about the place and time (rural England in the 1850’s) and thought a bit of it worth sharing.

My ancestor was on page 5 of these records, and the burials had all been conducted by the same rector from the first entry on page one. He added these notes from entry number two, through to twenty nine, then again for number thirty three, and then stopped. This is a summary of the relevant entries:

1   Male     5 weeks   Dec 1851

2   Male       44         Dec 1851      paralysis

3   Male       14         Jan 1852       consumption

4   Male       53         Jan 1852       consumption

5   Male         6         Jan 1852       scarlet fever

6   Male         3         Jan 1852       scarlet fever

7   Female    17         Feb 1852      typhus fever

8   Male        33         Feb 1852      consumption

9   Female    3¾        Jan 1852      scarlet fever

10 Male        53         Feb 1852      liver complaints. Publican.

11 Male        61         Mar 1852      paralysis, consumption

12 Male        19         Mar 1852      consumption 2½ years

13 Female    62         Apr 1852       cancer

14 Female    78         May 1852      old age

15 Male        33         Apr 1852      consumption

16 Male        55         May 1852     decline and heart disease

17 Female    69         Aug 1852      old age

18 Female      5         Aug 1852      inflammation of bowels

19 Female    13         Aug 1852      typhus fever

20 female     21         Aug 1852     consumption

21 Female    76         Aug 1852     coroner’s inquest. Verdict died by visitation of God

22 Male        63        Sep 1852     coroner’s inquest. Verdict died from injury in the head caused by fall

23 Female     71        Feb 1853      paralytic stroke and old age

24 Male         49        Apr 1853      labourer. Decline

25 Female     71        Feb 1853      coroner’s inquest. died by visitation of God, She dropped down dead when in perfect health

26 Male        85         Apr 1853      labourer. Paralysis

27 Male      infant      May 1853      jaundice

28 Female    64         Jun 1853      drowned herself in 11 inches of water. Morbid religious depression. A dissenter. Verdict temp insanity

29 Female   infant     Jun 1853      thrush

After this there are no further comments from the rector, other than:

33 Male        72        Sep 1853      disease of heart

There is quite a lot that is of interest here, and just from a statistical point of view we can see that nine of the burials were children under sixteen – just under a third of the total. Of those six were five or under. Lots of children died in those days. Yet somewhat surprisingly, fourteen of them – roughly half – were over fifty, with four in their seventies and one of eighty five. A very good age for the time. There doesn’t seem much difference in the average ages males and females lived to, although this is a tiny sample, of course. All the rural poor had tough lives, both male and female, which brings us to the comments added by the rector.

Number twenty six really caught my eye. Male, aged 85, a labourer, died of what the rector calls paralysis. No old age pension for them, they worked until they dropped. Number twenty four is also described as a labourer. Obviously the rector felt it worth mentioning, although why just those two, who knows?

Then we have the common diseases we’ve pretty well consigned to the past, now. Scarlet fever. Typhoid. Consumption – properly called tuberculosis. They killed frequently, especially the young.

And when the cause of death couldn’t be determined, even by inquest? ‘Visitation of God’. Although why those ones weren’t just put down to old age I can’t imagine. Unless somebody saw something…

Two more comments I have to mention, though. Number ten, male, age 53, died of liver complaints. The rector had to mention he was a publican, of course.

And then there is number twenty eight. Female, aged 64, drowned herself in 11 inches of water. Morbid religious depression. A dissenter. Verdict temp insanity. The rector belonged to the Church of England, and I’m sure he relished the suggestion that dissenters were mad. All the different denominations of the church seem to regularly go to war with the others, which, if you fancy a bit of a giggle, I satirised here some while ago.

A Bit Of Family History

As I have mentioned previously, I am sporadically tracing my family tree, something I’ve only really become interested in recently. Perhaps it is mainly an older person’s interest, although I don’t think I’ll explore that now. But I’m keen to pass on the information to my children and grandchildren especially, so they can do further research if they feel like it.

As well as the family connection, though, much of my interest is both the exercise of solving a puzzle – it has much in common with a detective story – and to attempt to ‘see’ something of the person behind a list of dates and names. It is comparatively straightforward to accumulate lists of these folk with no more information than a sort of ‘Fred Bloggs born 1750, married Mary Smith 1770 died 1820’ which is really of little interest to me.

But if you know where to look (and how to search) there is often more information available about our ancestors, although you also need a very large slice of luck to dig up interesting details of the lives of the average person. In my research, then, I have found a few folk, of whom I knew absolutely nothing to start with, not even their names, and have been able to build up a bit of a picture of their lives.

That’s what it’s all about, I reckon.

Here, then, is an example:

My Great Great Grandad was Frederick John Platt. He was born in 1826 or 1827; I cannot find his birth record, but all other documents are consistent in his age.

A couple of census entries:

1851 the family are at 2 Wilmot Street, Bethnal Green. They were: William Platt, 49, Handloom weaver, Ann, 59, Frederick J, 24, Sarah Susanah, 22, also William James Platt, 26, his wife Sarah, 28, and William James 4. All bar William James Junior are Handloom weavers.

1861 at 1 Green Street, Bethnal Green. They are: Frederick J Platt, 34, Broad silk weaver, Louisa S, 30, Broad silk weaver, Louisa M, 6, Frederick W, 5, Henry G, 1, George W, 1 month. All were born in Bethnal Green.

So far so good, but then there is a Crisis.

In 1861 Louisa Sarah Platt of 1 Green Street, age 30, died. It must have been very soon after the census was taken (on 7th April) as she was buried on 21st April. I obtained a copy of her entry in the Death Register, and it tells us she died on 14th April 1861 – ‘Found dead at 1 Green Street, Twig Folly Bridge, Bethnal Green’. She was aged thirty and the cause of death was given as ‘exhaustion after her confinement’. You can see on the 1861 census the youngest, George W, is recorded as one month old.

Green Street, Bethnal Green, from Cross’ Map of London 1851. Twig Folly on the right of the map gave its name to the bridge where Green Street crossed Regents Canal.

Then on May 8th 1861 we find the following Poor Law Removal judgement:

Frederick Platt, 34, of 1 Green Street, 5 years last 25 Jan, 3 Parliament Street, Cambridge Road, Mile End, B G (Bethnal Green). Weaver.

Was born at no. 10 Geo. Gardens B G never (ye?) has lived in B G all his life father before him. Had married at St. James the Less 1853, 12 June Co produced to Louisa Sarah, who died 3 weeks ago, Louisa 7, Frederick 5, Henry 17 mos, George 5 weeks, – B G

And then in another hand:

Father pd taxes Harts Lane B G Road about 17 yrs ago and Cranbrook St. about 2 yrs. He lives at 2 Cranbrook St.

I am unclear what the ‘removal’ part of the judgement refers to and can only assume it either means the children were taken from him, or they were all evicted from the property. The final paragraph about his father having paid taxes, I am guessing meant the authorities were then willing to provide some sort of support for the children. He had married Louisa Sarah Whalley sometime between April and June 1853, in Bethnal Green – June 12th according to the Poor Law Judgement – and after she died eight years later, his world seems to have fallen apart. And it seems to have happened so quickly! Less than three weeks after Louisa is buried, this judgement is passed upon the family.

But I suspect the family may already have been in some trouble.

Bethnal Green saw a huge influx of Huguenot immigrants during the late seventeenth and early eighteen centuries, almost exclusively silk weavers. Although I cannot find any evidence to back it up, I was told in my childhood that Mum’s ancestors were Huguenots, and that would suggest the Platts were the ones referred to. Whether Platt is an Anglicized version of a French name, or a Platt had married into a Huguenot family, though, I have not been able to determine. Over the years from the Huguenots’ arrival in Britain, though, various laws were put into effect to protect the British silk industry from foreign competition. However an 1860 treaty with France allowed silks to be imported duty free and very soon the industry was in freefall. Unable to compete in price with the imported cloths, huge numbers of weavers were thrown into poverty.

The next definite sighting of Frederick John Platt is in 1877 when his son, Frederick William, is married. On the form, Frederick John’s occupation is given as undertaker, and Frederick W is a commercial clerk. Clearly, they were no longer part of the weaving community. It is worth noting here that Frederick J’s older brother, William James Platt, has his occupation recorded as undertaker in the 1871 census, having also been a silk weaver prior to this date. It seems probable that Frederick either worked for him, or they were in partnership for a while. William then continues working as an undertaker for the rest of his life

After this, Frederick J seems to again drop off the radar for a while. I have a couple of other possible sightings but cannot find any census record for 1881 that I can be sure are his.

But then on September 15th 1884 Frederick John Platt, widower, 57, marries Sarah Mansfield, widow, 45, at St James the Less, Bethnal Green. By now he is described as a provision merchant of 40 Cranbrook Square.

One way or another, it seems he had managed to rebuild his life.

The 1891 census records a Frederick Platt, 65, ice cream vendor, and Sarah, 52, at 33 Quaker Street, Spitalfields.

And then? A Frederick Platt aged 74 died in Whitechapel, July – September 1899. That seems to be him. If it was, then he seems to have fallen upon hard times again. In January and February 1892 and then frequently from February 1895 through to February 1899 a Frederick Platt, widower, is recorded as being in and out of the workhouse at Stepney. His profession is given variously as wood chopper, labourer, or blacksmith’s assistant, and cause of admission each time as bronchitis or rheumatism.

We don’t realise how lucky we are.

Smallpox, Vaccinations, and my Ancestors in Essex

One branch of my family came from Essex. In the eighteen hundreds they lived in the Ashen area, in Ashen, Ovington, Clare, and, I expect, other nearby villages. Extended families all living within a few minutes walk of each other as was the way then, both in urban and rural areas. They were all farm labourers making more or less of a living and I would imagine they found life quite a struggle. Most did.

Yesterday I made a systematic search through the parish records for the Ashen area, looking at every page between 1800-odd and 1890-odd. The pages up to approximately 1815 are water-stained and virtually indecipherable, and they finish around 1890. This branch of the family were named Hickford and I decided to extract every entry of that name to help me piece together the relationships. These records are of Births and burials and, before 1837, marriages. After this date the marriage records were held in London.

I don’t propose to bore you with any details of the family, but I was particularly struck by the following entry:

Mary Hickford was only thirty five when she died on June 16th, 1839. What is interesting is the note appended to her burial record by the rector. And it was the only such record I noticed, although I might have overlooked one for another family. It reads:

She died of the small-pox between 3 and 4 o’clock on Sunday the 16th and buried a little after midnight. I read the burial service over her grave at 10 o’clock this same morning. L Squire, Rector of Ashen.

So much haste! No sooner is she dead than she is buried – in the small hours of the morning, no less. The gravediggers must have started work almost as soon as she had breathed her last. It illustrates how terrified people would have been of catching the disease.

We have forgotten how virulent and frightening smallpox was, since it was finally eradicated by vaccination in 1979. Up until the 1800’s it killed thousands of people, and disfigured many more than that. Attempts to protect people from it by vaccination go back much further than Edmund Jenner famously inoculating a boy with ‘cow pox’, essential a milder form of the same virus, to produce antibodies that would protect against smallpox. He had learned that country folk had noticed that milkmaids who worked with cattle all the time might develop cowpox, but rarely caught smallpox, and would occasionally inoculate themselves with cowpox to ward of smallpox.

A thousand years ago in China, healthy people inhaled a powder made from smallpox scabs which provided some protection against the disease. Another method was to scratch the surface of the skin and introduce the powder into the body that way. Versions of this circulated around Asia and Africa until stories reached the west in the 1700’s.

Since the disease killed so many, especially children, parents were keen to have their children inoculated. But naturally there were scare stories. There was an anti-vaccine movement ridiculed in this well-known cartoon by the then prominent cartoonist Gilray, in which patients are seen developing cow-like pustules as soon as they are innoculated.

These, of course, were the nineteenth century version of today’s anti-vaxxers protesting with no proof whatsoever that the vaccine is a way of inserting microchips to monitor and control the population, of ignorance rejecting science. And just as true.

So Little Time, So Much To Do

The last week or so seems to have been ridiculously busy. All my own fault, of course. I’ve become exceptionally good at realising I’m doing rather a lot…and then starting a new project to add to it.

I’m making good progress on my current work in progress, A Good Place. Check.

Totally irrelevant photo, but one of my favourite shots. Small boy carrying dead sharks on a donkey. As you do.

Now that I have unpublished both of my books from Amazon, I have submitted Making Friends with the Crocodile to a publisher who will accept work that has been previously self-published and am waiting on a yes or no from them. Check.

I have edited two of the poems I wrote last month during my Poem-a-day-for-a-week experiment, and my talented friend Mark Prestage is including them in a pamphlet / zine / chapbook /call it what you will with some of his superb linocuts and photos. More on that when it’s out.

And while I’m thinking about that, perhaps I should have a go at another Poem-a-day-for-a-week soon, it worked quite well, really.

What I haven’t yet done is put my short stories and poem book, The Night Bus, up on a new platform. This will probably be Lulu, and I really ought to do that soon.

I haven’t been very good at visiting blogs recently, as you might have noticed. I need to do a bit more of that.

I was going to start a painting, which I haven’t managed to do yet. Really, I do sometimes set myself too much to do.

So, a new project? Really? Well, yes, actually. Forty years or so ago my father began a family tree, which I occasionally helped him with. It has sat in a cupboard since he died thirty years ago. And now I’ve had the urge to take it up and do some work on it, partly because I’m aware that there is a whole branch of my family which has died out, and only myself and one cousin would still remember any of them. And, we’re not getting any younger, you know. So I’ve begun researching that.

And I wonder where the time goes.