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Friday, 28 June 2013

Vaccination Pioneers

Vaccination registers are a fabulous way to research your ancestors' childhood, and they are the subject of my latest feature, for the July issue of Discover Your Ancestors.  Smallpox was a killer disease and your ancestors' families were very likely to have known someone who had suffered from it even if they were lucky enough to escape the disease themselves. Smallpox inoculation was first popularized in England by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Dr Jenner helped to develop the use of cowpox material instead of smallpox matter; people sometimes died after being immunised.   
In Regency Cheshire, Dr John Haygarth (1740–1827), helped to promote inoculation, He was the author of An Inquiry How to Prevent the Smallpox (1784), and pioneered separate wards for fever patients. 

Images: Dr Edward Jenner, Beeton’s Dictionary of Universal Biography, Ward, Lock and Tyler, 1870. Author’s collection.
John Haygarth. Engraving by W.Cooke from a painting by J. H. Bell. Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. XCVII, Part 2, London, 1827. Author’s collection.

The Smallpox Hospital, King’s Cross, London in 1800.  The Hospital, founded in 1746, was founded to treat smallpox patients and to provide vaccinations. Old and New London Vol. V., Cassell, Petter & Galpin, c.1890. Author’s collection.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Review of Deirdre Le Faye's Jane Austen's Letters

Deirdre Le Faye's Jane Austen's Letters (Oxford University Press, 2011) is an invaluable addition to the bookshelves of Jane Austen fans and scholars of her life and times.  The updated fourth edition includes a new preface, revamped biographical and topographical indexes (i.e. indexes of people and places mentioned in Jane's letters).  The biographical index is particularly helpful if, like many of us, you find the complex network of Austen's family and friends confusing (and it is a very complicated family tree, especially if you include the remarriages of Jane's brothers). The new subject index is a 'must-have' if you are interested in the social history of Austen's day.

Victorian reviewers of the Brabourne edition of Jane Austen's letters did not appear to find them particularly interesting compared with those of, for example, Fanny Burney, who wrote her letters with a view to their eventual publication, but this is to do Austen an injustice.  Her wit and charm shines out of her surviving letters, and I think they are the closest thing we will ever have to a 'conversation' with Jane in which we can hear her 'voice'.

The history of the letters' publication, and their provenance (explored in the preface and notes) are fascinating.  Jane's sister Cassandra burned many letters containing any very personal information (precisely those which would interest us most today). Several letters have been lost since their first publication, and others are known only in part, because they were cut up and distributed amongst the family. 

Le Faye has methodically documented the provenance, current location (if known) and publication of each letter and put them in sequence.  She clearly explains many seemingly puzzling references in the letters.

One phrase, however, she finds 'unexplained': in a letter to Cassandra (26 November 1815), Jane says that they have not had many visitors that week, but now she is 'in terror' because it is a 'fine bright Sunday, plenty of Mortar and nothing to do'.  Le Faye suggests that 'mortar' might be slang for 'money', and that this is a reference to a popular song of the day.

A quick glance at Grose's Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1788 and later editions) doesn't support 'mortar' as a euphemism for money, however.  At the risk of putting my head on the block, I humbly suggest that 'plenty of Mortar and nothing to do' sounds as if it's something a builder or stonemason might say if he'd mixed lots of mortar, but then had nothing to build, and was left twiddling his thumbs in the sunshine. Could this perhaps be something that a builder or workman had said when doing some work for the Austen family?  I'd be very interested to hear what other readers think, anyway.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Discover Your Ancestors Review

Launching a new family history publication may be considered a brave step by some following the recent demise of the online Discover My Past (back issues still available), and the much lamented Family History Monthly.   

However, the new Discover Your Ancestors Periodical is hoping to build on the success of the glossy annual bookazine, available from newsagents or the publisher. The monthly magazine is published in association with theGenealogist.

The first issue (May) had an article on tracking down archives by expert author Simon Fowler, social history articles on the early aviators and on child labour, a look at records available for Essex, book reviews and more.The June issue focussed on the suffragette movement, records for the legendary Dambusters squadron, how to research Welsh Anglican and Nonconformist ancestors, plus a look at Birmingham resources and more.

Looking at the first two issues, I would say that the magazine is initially aimed at those starting out in family history.  However, hardened campaigners should still find the social history articles and focus on particular records valuable, particularly if you like to put your ancestors’ lives in context. Next month's features are listed here, including one on vaccination registers by yours truly.

Subscribers can download the whole magazine in pdf. format or you can just browse each article online. Unfortunately I can’t comment on how easy the magazine is to read on mobile devices as I am old-fashioned and just use my phone for texts and calls!

The monthly periodical is 20 pages long, fully illustrated, and comes with free subscriber data.  It costs £1 per month (£12 for a year’s subscription). 
This compares with £4.99 for BBC Who Do You Think You Are? (100 pages long).  Your Family History and Family Tree are both £4.99 I think (the latter is £3.99 for its digital edition).  These magazines also have subscriber offers and offer free data sets.

As always with the family history magazines, I think which you choose very much depends on your budget, how experienced a researcher you are, and which datasets are useful for your personal research.  You may like to flit between each magazine according to which records are being discussed that month, or you may prefer to treat yourself to a subscription so that you don’t have to remember to buy it each month, and so that you can keep up with the latest news.  

Do you prefer a print magazine which you can thumb through (in or out of the bath!), or do you prefer to read articles on your mobile device or PC?  I’d love to hear your views!

Monday, 10 June 2013

Reach for the Skies!

Yesterday we went to see the RAF Cosford Air Show, which this year showcased the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.  A Lancaster bomber, Hurricane, Spitfire and C47 Dakota put on an amazing show, and the last flying Vulcan was a real crowd-pleaser.  The Red Arrows were on their
usual form with a breath-taking display.

We had a fantastic day out.  The only downside was that it took us a very long time to get into the venue, and an excruciatingly long time to get out again – the local road infrastructure clearly can’t cope with so many visitors.  Next time we would seriously consider going by train instead.

Update for Genealogists
If your ancestor was an early aviator, has just released records for Aero Club members, including aeronaut certificates.  Their Pilot Records collection (Occupation Records section of the website) now covers 1909-1926, and can be accessed by Diamond subscribers.

Photos © Sue Wilkes:
Lancaster bomber, Spitfire and Hurricane at the Cosford Air Show. 
Vulcan bomber XH558 at the air show.
The Red Arrows hit the high notes.

Example of aviators’ certificate records, including that of Albert Ball, and postcard of Samuel Cody’s biplane courtesy

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Save Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry!

I was horrified to see that the Museum of Science and Industry at Manchester is in danger of closing.  It is reported that the Science Museum Group, of which MOSI is now a member, has a massive operating deficit. It seems that MOSI, the National Railway Museum in York and Bradford's National Media Museum may face the axe in order to keep the Science Museum in London open.

Lancashire was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, and Manchester – ‘Cottonopolis’ – was its beating heart.  The first inter-city railway was built here, and the Liverpool and Manchester Railway station is an important part of the MOSI site. Manchester’s contribution to the great scientific breakthroughs of the twentieth century such as computing is well known: MOSI is home to 'Baby', the first stored-programme computer built at Manchester University in 1948.

MOSI is a living showcase of our industrial past, in particular the industrial revolution, with nationally important collections relating to the cotton industry and the city’s social history.   If the collection is closed or dispersed, a wonderful treasure for past and future generations will be lost and is unlikely to be replaced. 

It seems unlikely that the City Council would take over MOSI, as it too faces swingeing cuts from Whitehall and has to prioritise funding for essential services.  But this could be a short-sighted view: I understand from the MEN report that over 830,000 people visited MOSI last year.  Visitors generate income for local businesses, which in turn pay their local rates, and hence more funding for Manchester.  A multiplicity of high quality tourist attractions are vital to help promote the city and attract visitors.

MOSI is not just a collection of machinery – the museum is a window into the past so that we can see how our Lancashire ancestors (including my own) lived and worked in Manchester.  It’s a great resource for local schools, colleges and students as well as tourists. Its closure would be a national disgrace, as well as a local tragedy.  

Although free admission boosts visitor numbers, I would rather pay a modest entrance fee, if this is the only way to keep the museum open.  However, it seems that the Science Museum Group does not have the power to impose entrance fees. 

Please take a moment to sign the MEN petition to save MOSI; there’s also one on

Update 6 May: The Financial Times is running the story this morning, and the MEN petition has already received over 20,000 signatures


Weaving shed, Haworth’s Mills, Ordsall, Lancashire. Illustration by H E Tidmarsh, Manchester Old and New Vol. II, (Cassell & Co., c. 1894).

Drawing cotton at Richard Howarth & Co., Tatton Mills, Ordsall, early C. 20th postcard.