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Thursday, 31 October 2013

Jane Austen's Portrait For Sale

You can read the story here on my Jane Austen blog.

Cheshire Soulcakers

The quiet Cheshire villages of Antrobus and Comberbach have their own very special celebrations for All Hallows’ Eve - the Soul-cakers - a tradition dating back hundreds of years.

The Soul-cakers, or Soul Gangs, tour local pubs with their ancient Mummers' Play and its star performer, the supernatural Wild Horse.  Country folk in Cheshire and parts of Derbyshire once believed their ancestors’ souls could return to the family fireside at this time; they made special ‘soul-cakes’ as offerings to appease the family spirits.

The tradition differed from village to village.  Before WWI, around Malpas, Tarporley and Frodsham, children and adults marched from house to house, singing traditional ‘soul-caking’ songs in return for small, spicy ‘soul-cakes’ (similar to parkin cake).   

‘Soul a soul a soul cake

Please good missus, a soul cake...’                                                                                                                                   

In other villages, ‘Mummers’ plays were performed by the Soul-cakers, going from house to house.  Afterwards they passed the hat round for a collection - and some soul-cakes.

Over forty Cheshire villages are thought to have had versions of the play, but the Great War proved disastrous for the tradition; so many men never returned. Luckily Major Arnold Boyd, a Cheshire naturalist and author in the 1920s, was interested in the play.  Major Boyd wrote down the words, called a ‘nominy,’ which had been passed down through the generations, and helped the play survive. 

The Play has many unusual characters, for example, the Letter-in, Black Prince, King George, the Quack Doctor, and ‘Dick’ the Wild Horse and his Driver, resplendent in Cheshire Hunt livery. All the parts, played by men, are thought to represent the souls of the dead.

Wild Horse’s head is a horse’s skull, with its jaws wired so it can ‘snap’ its teeth alarmingly at the audience, and is worked by a man covered with a blanket.  His legs form the horse’s back legs, and a short pole supports the skull at the horse’s front end. 

Nowadays, the Soul-cakers play in local pubs, beginning on Hallowe’en, instead of house to house. The Antrobus Soul-cakers have raised hundreds of pounds for charity over the years. The plays have enjoyed a revival in other Cheshire towns and villages like Chester, Comberbach, Alderley, and Mobberley.  You can search for forthcoming events here on the Master Mummers Directory.

Image © Sue Wilkes: the Comberbach Mummers performing in 2000, with ‘Wild Horse’. 
'Riding a Mumming'. From J. Brand, Popular Antiquities, London, 1841. 

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Baby Days

The new royal baby, Prince George, will be baptised on Wednesday 23 September at the Chapel Royal in St James's Palace. Although your ancestors are unlikely to have made their first public appearance in a blaze of publicity and media attention like the young prince, your ancestors' parents may have placed a birth notice in a local or national newspaper.

Publications such as the Gentleman's Magazine printed birth, marriage and death notices for the middle classes, gentry and aristocracy. Magazines like these can be very useful for tracing ancestors before civil registration was introduced, and before census records were kept.

However, the name of a person's wife and child is rarely given in old newspapers (see this example from the Gentleman's Magazine, below left): just the child's gender is usually mentioned. 

Local record offices and archives keep copies of old newspapers, but it can be very time-consuming to search through these unless you know an approximate birth date already.  However, you can now search many old newspapers online at websites like the British Newspaper Archive and Welsh Newspapers

Baptisms were recorded in parish registers (local record offices) from 1538 onwards, and many local family history societies have transcribed parish registers. Familysearch and FreeReg are both useful free websites for searching for baptismal records, too.  Remember that baptisms may have taken place several months or even years after they were born (one of my ancestor's children was baptised at Manchester Cathedral seven years after her birth!)

You can order birth certificates for children born after 1837 (when civil registration was introduced) from the General Register Office or local register offices (the latters' indexes are the most accurate).  There's a list of sites offering access to the General Register Office indexes here, and some local indexes are listed at UK BMD.  Children born in institutions like hospitals and workhouses were recorded in registers of births, too.

And of course, there's lots more info on how to find out more about your ancestor's baby days in Tracing Your Ancestors' Childhood.

Undated photo postcard of a child and baby. Author's collection.
Gentleman's Magazine, December 1827, Vol. XCVII, Part 2, Author's collection.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

A-Z of Earning A Living

Eagle-eyed readers of the new Discover Your History magazine (formerly Your Family History) will have spotted my new 5-part series on ancestors' occupations: the A-Z of Earning A Living.  I'm delving into some occupations which crop up in the Victorian censuses. Some trades like baking bread, dyeing cloth and making shoes date back to ancient times.

Guilds like the London Livery Companies were founded during the medieval period, and there's a free online database of apprentices and freemen where you can check for your ancestors' names.  Companies included at present are the Clothworkers, (1545-1908), Drapers (c.1400-1900), and the Mercers (1339-1900), with some data from the Goldsmiths' Company (1600-1700).

Thousands of children worked during Victorian times: they worked as domestic servants, on the land, in coal mines, factories, and in metal manufactures, to name just a few. Many were apprentices, compulsorily bound to a master by the parish authorities.

The age at which your ancestor began work depended on the date; the 1944 Education Act raised the school leaving age to fifteen (an earlier attempt was forestalled by WW2).

In the September issue of Discover Your History, I discussed agricultural labourers, bakers, cotton workers, dockers, dyers and engineers.  My feature in the new October issue explores the world of fishermen, gas workers, haberdashers, half-timers, hawkers, iron workers, jewellers and joiners.  You'll have to buy the magazine to find out more!

Images from the author's collection:
Carpenters and joiners at work. French engraving, c.1820.
Whitby fishermen, Punch, 23 September 1882.
Retorts at a Lancashire Gas Works. Lancashire Industrial & Commercial, 1935.