Let me add to Laura’s great advice by saying that archive research is tremendous fun and can be so rewarding. Family history research is almost like doing a jigsaw puzzle without knowing quite what the final picture looks like. You’ve got lots of pieces through sitting at your computer but the picture isn’t complete. The missing bits are mixed up with others in different archive boxes so you need to search through them for pieces that fit. Solving that puzzle demands great persistence but when you have finished the result will have been well worth the effort.
I used to think that archives existed to protect their boring contents from the public and that they were only accessible for high brow academic research. That could not have been further from the truth. My epiphany happened about six years ago while studying for my Diploma in Genealogy, Palaeographic and Heraldic Studies with the University of Strathclyde. That is when I first realised that there is real family history treasure to be found in the archives but one needs to go hunting to find it.
|John and Eliza DAVENPORT|
Wormleighton was part of the estate owned by Earl Spencer (of whom Lady Diana Spencer was a descendant). I wanted to be able to look at old maps and any other records relating to the Spencer estates to see what I could learn about Wormleighton before John made his epic journey. I had consulted The National Archives online catalogue before my first ever visit to any archive, Warwickshire County Record Office, so I had some idea what I might be able to find. There I was able to consult old maps, parish registers and obtain general background on Wormleighton.
Local newspapers provided one nugget when I was able to read about John’s father Polemus having won a £5 prize from the Warwickshire Agricultural Society for having produced eight children. I have only ever been able to find seven of his offspring!
Archive material for the Spencer Estates are held at Northamptonshire County Records Office. It will be many a day before such a disparate collection of papers and books are ever made available online. Without being there I would have missed the second nugget, a small bound notebook known as the Estate Order Book principally used to make a note of materials that needed to be procured. In it, estate factor John SELBY had recorded details of a confrontation in March 1868 between him and John’s neighbour, John BULL over the cutting of a boundary hedge. Insight is given to the likely condition of John DAVENPORT’s cottage “….the drainage and cesspools of the sculleries, which drainage had become very imperfect”. There is a lesson here as if I had just assumed it was a shopping list of materials I would never have found the reference to John DAVENPORT. It is always worth leafing through any records you find.
I also wanted to see what was held in the Highland Archive Centre in Inverness, Scotland, the town of my birth. John had gone to work for Lord Lovat and lived with his family in an estate cottage in Cruivend near Beauly. Sadly it became clear that I was going to have little luck with old estate records which I’m told were destroyed in a fire in the 1930s. The archive did hold other records which yielded valuable information. Valuation Rolls showed the names and occupations of John’s neighbours, Kilmorack Parish Records showed that Liza was the regular churchgoer in the family but it was the Inverness Poor Law records which threw up a big surprise. I discovered an 1892 Record of Application for Parochial Relief made by the widowed Eliza on behalf of her illegitimate grandson Daniel. Not surprisingly, that document opened up a whole new line of investigation.
Having spoken to the Council Cemeteries Department I discovered where and when John and Eliza had been buried. Armed with that knowledge I took the opportunity to visit Inverness Library where contemporary copies of The Inverness Courier were available on microfiche and I was able to find funeral notices for both of them. Today that newspaper is available online but it was not at that time.
During the second year of my course, I had visited the University of Glasgow Archives which hold a surprising array of historical records including those for NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde.
|Lizzie SCRIMGEOUR c 1909|
When my family history research showed that my great-grandmother, Elizabeth SCRIMGEOUR had died of influenza in 1919 in Gartloch Asylum, Lanarkshire I contacted them to see what more I could find out about her time in what I thought must be an isolation hospital. When a large brown envelope arrived containing copies of her medical records I discovered that Lizzie had spent the last 15 years of her life in and out of mental hospitals. From the age of 36, she had suffered from serious depression following the still birth of what would have been her tenth child. Her case notes alone were fascinating but imagine my reaction when I discovered two photographs of my great-grandmother.
|Lizzie SCRIMGEOUR c 1918|
Sometimes it just isn’t feasible to visit an archive in person. My experience of dealing with archives over the telephone and by email has been universally positive. You will find that the archive staff bend over backwards to help with your research and will often suggest alternative lines of enquiry.
Inspired by my experience with Lizzie SCRIMGEOUR and having spent a short time completing some coursework in my local archive, the Wakefield office of the West Yorkshire Archive Service, I returned there to have another look at their collection of material relating to what was latterly known as Stanley Royd Hospital, originally the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum. This wasn’t on a personal family history quest, more to satisfy my curiosity regarding what I might find in their remarkably complete collection of patients’ case notes. I can still remember the extraordinary buzz I felt opening my first large case book to read the handwritten physician’s notes from nearly 200 years ago. I was hooked by a record set full of factual material some of which is stranger than fiction. Three years later, having trawled through an estimated 30,000 pages of handwritten doctors’ notes, visited five and corresponded with eight other archives to expand my research, I finally published Proper People. Early Asylum Life in the Words of Those Who Were There which explores the experiences of over 150 patients admitted between 1818 and 1869.
Finally a plug for Lunacy Records. My earlier post Searching Online for Early Asylum Ancestors looks at the registers available on Ancestry to help identify lunatic ancestors. If you find one, celebrate, as if their asylum case notes survive and you are allowed to access them, you may have struck gold. Beyond your ancestors age, occupation, place of abode and marital status, you may also find details of immediate next of kin, mentions of extended family members, the actual address where they lived, a physical description, what had led to their committal, how they had behaved and been treated while in the asylum and whether they had been discharged or died and if the latter, cause of death. The really lucky researcher might find personal letters or even a photograph among their records.
So leave the computer behind and go and immerse yourself in some archives. A whole new exciting chapter awaits.
Good luck with your treasure hunting!