My family and other plants

It was something that Roy Lancaster had written in the January issue of The Garden which resonated with me:  “over the years I have come to regard [my plants] as an extended family…Like all gardens, there are losses and new arrivals that help provide a continuing sense of anticipation and pleasure”.

What good fortune he has had to have lived in the same house for well over 30 years!  Hence he can look out into his garden at plants collected over that period, some given to him by friends, some bought by him and some grown from cuttings or seeds.  As he says, “each comes with a story”.

And so it is, as we prepare for a house move this summer, that our garden plants are much in my mind.  As frequent movers (due to my husband’s job), many of our plants are deliberately grown in pots for ease of transportation, but to others, as with friends made in our current location, we will have to bid a fond farewell in due course.

The other week we did the annual repotting of the amaryllis bulbs after their overwintering in the dark and cool of the garage.  One of them is named Vera (I can show you the label if you don’t believe me), named after the dear elderly lady to whom it previously belonged.  Somehow we inherited it after her death more than 15 years ago (and two houses ago).  It blooms faithfully.

The hydrangea in the front garden was from a cutting of a plant in my Mum’s garden, and which I don’t think will tolerate moving.  However, anticipating this I have two cuttings from it in the kitchen which I am hopeful will thrive and can in time be planted in a new garden.

Currently in the greenhouse there’s a fuchsia given us by someone two moves ago who also, sadly, has now passed on.  I was saddened that all of my fuchsias last year developed some kind of infection which distorts the leaves and flowers.  It’s a great shame because I love fuchsias.

We also have a peony which dates from three moves ago.  Now rather crowded out by Japanese anemones, it may not be worth the effort to attempt a fourth move.

As with family and friends there are inevitably losses over the years.  I do like fruiting trees and bushes.  We had a small cherry two moves ago which, with herculean effort, we did manage to move and replant and hopefully it is still thriving at our previous house.  The cherry bought to replace it here, though, very sadly died.  We came to the conclusion that the conditions were not right.

Attending a family funeral two weeks’ ago it was sobering to realise how many of that generation have passed on in the time we have been in our current house.   But at the same time it was heartening to see the ‘younger generation’, all grown up now with gainful employment and meaningful relationships, and to learn of one new twiglet due to make an appearance on the family tree later this year.

Pouring over the photo albums in the pub after the funeral proved to be an unexpectedly bonding experience.  Spotting ourselves as young children, we shared memories of the games we played at the legendary Christmas family parties.

Losses and new growth, plants to say goodbye to and cuttings to take with us.  2020 is likely to bring new discoveries both of ancestors on the tree and plants in a new garden.  One plant, though, which we are determined to take with us, is the wisteria which for over 20 years has been entwined around a framed garden seat.  Last weekend we took a pruning saw to it and separated the two.  We managed to keep a surprising amount of growth, so now we just hope that the shock of separation will not prove fatal and that it will join the family of plants to be moved by one means or another to pastures new.  Both plants and family history provide that “continuing sense of anticipation and pleasure”.

Newly separated wisteria


First steps with DNA

Did you see Ant and Dec’s DNA Journey back in November?  Personally I only watched the first episode and got rather fed up with the lack of family history content, but it demonstrates how mainstream the use of DNA for genealogy has become.

I had resisted doing a test up till now, partly put off by the seemingly bewildering array of terminology associated with it and partly, it has to be said, put off by the cost.  Would it really be worth it?

The Family Tree Live event last April, though, was an opportunity to investigate further and we decided to take the plunge and buy testing kits from Living DNA who offer Autosomal and Mitochondrial/YChromosome testing in one go.  The process was very straightforward and we got our results back very quickly.   It was fun to check out our results, and we were impressed with the clear graphics and UK geographical break-down.  I was not surprised to see it place the majority of my ancestry within southern England, though more perplexing was the apparent lack any ancestry in East Anglia which is actually the focus of much of my research.  But then what?

In all the articles you read or tweets you see, people are talking about their matches.  But nowhere on the Living DNA site could we see any reference to matches.  Well the months passed and the time came for the West Surrey Family History Fair at Woking.  I saw that there was a DNA help desk, so I waited my turn.  I was not disappointed.  It turned out that the expert was Brian Swann from the International Society of Genetic Genealogy and he knew his stuff.  By this time I was thinking I had made a big mistake in testing with Living DNA, but I was actually reassured to learn that the company is alone in using data from the People of the British Isles DNA project, enabling it to offer the detailed UK geographical breakdown, and so the quality of the results I have is good.  He recommended that I download my raw data and upload to other testing companies where possible, whilst agreeing that it would probably also be worthwhile to test with Ancestry due to the scale of its dataset and the fact that you can’t upload test results from anywhere else to their site.  He also pointed me in the direction of a couple of useful blogs –  and , the particularly helpful website of Debbie Kennett.

With renewed confidence and enthusiasm I succeeded in downloading my raw data and then looked for places to upload it.  I discovered that I couldn’t upload it to Family Tree DNA, and although it appeared to be possible to upload to MyHeritage, I then got a message to say that the data was in a format not currently supported.  So that was a bit disappointing.  It was possible to upload to Gedmatch, but I have been a bit wary since of security issues with this organisation.

I had not appreciated at the time of testing that LivingDNA did not currently provide a matching service.  However, it would seem that this is a work in progress as there is now the option on the site to opt into ‘Family Networks’.  I did this a couple of months ago, but although it says to check back every couple of weeks there are apparently still no matches for me.

Just before Christmas Ancestry was doing a special offer on its DNA tests so I decided to go for it.  I’m now eagerly awaiting my results and hoping that this time I will be able to see some matches.

Why do it at all?  Well I guess people’s reasons vary hugely, but for me it’s firstly the interest factor of seeing where geographically my ancestors might have come from several generations back, which may or may not confirm the ‘paper’ research I have undertaken myself.  Secondly it’s the possibility of finding ‘matches’ with whom to make contact, who may share a common ancestor and with whom I may be able to collaborate in my research.  The former aspect is ably covered by the LivingDNA results and I’m hoping that Ancestry will come up with matches to satisfy the latter aspect.  Since the greater the DNA samples the more accurate the results will be, the whole thing will always be a work in progress.  Which just about sums up Family History!

By the way, the February issue of Family Tree magazine has just come in the post and it’s a DNA ‘special’!

Steam for 6 hours

Does anyone actually make their own Christmas pudding these days apart from Jill Archer on the Archers?  I can’t imagine why even she still does it, considering she is supposed to be 89… and I’m sure ‘the supermarket’ in Borchester must sell them or, if she wanted a superior version, she could pop into Underwood’s food hall.  Basically it’s just a device to get Josh and Ben into the kitchen on Stir Up Sunday, isn’t it, with an ensuing conversation that will move the plot line along ever so slightly?

I do remember my Mum making her own puddings when I was a child.  What a fiddle it all seemed, but I admit it was fun when we all got to have a stir of the mixture.  I don’t have her recipe to hand, but I do have her mother’s recipe book.  Granny’s recipe for Christmas Pudding involves 10oz each of brown sugar, self raising flour, bread crumbs, suet, raisins, sultanas and currants, plus 5oz mixed peel, 2oz almonds, the grated rind of 1 lemon, nutmeg, salt, 6 eggs and 4 tablespoons of rum.  Her notes underneath indicate that in 1976 (when she was 88) she made half quantity.

On a card in my own recipe book I have my mother-in-law’s Christmas Pudding instructions.   The standard quantities there are 8oz, but there are other variations such as 2 grated carrots and the addition of brandy as well as rum.  The recipe instructs you to leave the mixed ingredients to stand overnight before putting into pudding basins and steaming for 6 hours.  6 hours!!  Goodness, that would need to be a day when you weren’t going anywhere, to be able to constantly check it wasn’t boiling dry.  And what a lot of fuel!  And then you’ve got to steam it for another 2 hours or so on Christmas Day.

Amongst my recipe book collection I also have Jennifer Aldridge’s Archers’ Cookbook, published in 1994.  I expect I found it in a charity shop somewhere.  Anyway, there it is in black and white – Jill Archer’s Christmas Pudding recipe!  She too goes for 8oz for most ingredients, but adds 4 chopped apples, glace cherries and the juice of 1 orange and 1 lemon, but only 2 eggs.  And in addition to the rum, she apparently uses 1 ½pt of ‘old ale’.  The instructions suggest steaming for up to 10 hours, with the advice that “the longer the steaming the darker the pudding will be”.

Apparently Jill’s recipe was handed down from the Forrest family but has been improved by Jill over the years.  That’s how it used to work, isn’t it, recipes handed down from one generation to the next?  I almost feel guilty for never having made a Christmas Pudding in my life….  Almost.  But really?  When I can pop down to the Cook shop and buy a really nice one that I can just heat in the microwave?  Well, never say never – maybe one day (still some time hence I fear), when I’m retired and can spend a whole day at home towards the end of November, when perhaps there will be small people around who can stir and make a wish…

Greetings of the Festive Season to all my readers!

Behind the scenes at the record office

When I saw that West Sussex Record Office was holding an Open Day with the possibility of behind the scenes tours I knew I needed to plan a Chichester trip!

I’ve been to WSRO a number of times in the past to undertake various pieces of research and on a quick reckoning I believe I have been to 8 other county record offices across the country, plus places like The National Archives and the Society of Genealogists.  I was therefore particularly intrigued to see what goes on behind the scenes.

I was really lucky that when I arrived they still had a few spaces left for the 11.30 tour – just time to pop my coat and bag in a locker.  At that point I bumped into Mick Henry of the Sussex Family History Group.  He was clutching his proof copy of the latest journal and I was so intrigued to hear about the background of one of the articles that I actually managed to miss the departure of the group tour!  However, I was swiftly taken through to join the group in the strongroom, where Jennifer, the Collections Manager, was talking about the conditions in which the documents are kept.  From there we moved on to a room at the back of the building where new acquisitions are kept in ‘quarantine’ and cleaned up if necessary.  Some new articles may arrive with mould or bugs so it’s obviously important not to introduce anything like that into the rest of the collections.

Moving through the building we were then introduced to the work of Screen Archive South East .  Their work includes collecting, repairing and digitising old cine film which they are then able to make accessible to the public and they are interested in material from not just Sussex but from Surrey and Kent too.  We watched a little promotional film from 1970 on the joys of visiting Margate!

Upstairs we had the delight of watching one of the conservators in action as she showed us how she uses very light Japanese tissue paper (made of cotton, not wood pulp) to preserve fragile documents.  What patience and attention to detail you need for that work!  She was working on pages from a parish register and it is a lovely light and spacious working area.  After passing various offices and another room housing books we made our way back down to the reception desk and the hour-long tour was finished.  It was totally worth doing and it has given me so much more insight into the work that goes on at the record office.

After the tour I took time to look at the displays in the searchroom.  Various maps were available to view and also the oldest document held by the archives – a Grant of Land made by Oslac, leader of the South Saxons, in 780AD.  Members of the West Sussex Archives Society as well as the Sussex Family History Group were also on hand to answer questions and to help with research queries.

It’s so important that we use and support our archive services. Sometimes visiting a record office can seem daunting and the staff a little intimidating, but I’m sure that meeting so many friendly staff will have helped to break down that barrier for any visitors who had not stepped inside the building previously. The staff will have put a lot of hard work into organising the day but, judging by their tweets afterwards, the staff at WSRO were pleased with the number of visitors they welcomed at the open day.

In the Strongroom at West Sussex Record Office. I’m right at the back of the group on the right. (Photo is the property of WSRO, from their Twitter feed on 23 November 2019)

We will remember them

I often feel as though I don’t achieve anything particularly meaningful, but today I feel I have.

I write this on 11 November and today was the culmination of months of research and planning.  We held an event at Godalming College to mark the reinstatement of the memorial to those former pupils who gave their lives during the Second World War.  I first began to think about the memorial probably over a year ago.  As a pupil at the former Grammar School I used to pass the wall-mounted memorial every time I went up or down the main staircase, and at Remembrance time the cabinet was opened up to reveal the 16 photos of the men who were killed.

At some point, maybe 12 or 15 years ago, the memorial was taken down.  It was deemed at that time not to be relevant in a modern Sixth Form College.  I started to make enquiries of various people and fairly soon ascertained that it was being stored in the old sports pavilion at the other side of the field.  I talked with the only other Old Godhelmian on the staff, a History teacher, and together we went to speak to the Principal to ask how she would feel about reinstating it somewhere, especially in view of the imminent 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War.  She was very positive about the idea and particularly keen to engage the enthusiasm of current students.  We felt it would be great if current students could conduct some research into the lives of those on the memorial.

And so, earlier this year, the memorial was retrieved from the sports pavilion and one of the Estates guys did a fantastic job of sanding down and re-waxing the wood.  A position was decided on and the memorial put back up.  As the History students were being enthused about the research, we invited to college a 100 year old lady who had been in the very first intake to the school back in 1930.  She talked with the students about her experience of school and her memories of those on the memorial, including Thomas Tinsey who she reported had been dared to set fire to the boiler room!  (He didn’t succeed).

Today we welcomed the mayors of Godalming and Waverley, the Chair of Trustees and some Old Godhelmians as the students presented their research and we marked Armistice Day.  A student played the Last Post very ably to a large crowd of students and staff gathered outside and it was very moving to observe the two minutes’ silence in that way.  Back inside a wreath was laid at the memorial and the exhortation read.  This year, among this cohort of students, there has been real engagement with the lives of those who went before, finding local connections and making their history studies more real.  The mayor asked that in due course a copy of their research could be passed to the local museum.  I am very pleased with what we have achieved together, honouring those who achieved so much during that war.  We will remember them.

A list of those commemorated on the Godalming Grammar School WW2 Memorial
Some of research undertaken
Memorial showing the photos of the 16 men

A Norfolk Diary

In my last blog I drew on the writings of The Revd Benjamin Armstrong, one time Vicar of East Dereham in Norfolk.  Having discovered the publications of his diary excerpts I can’t put them down!

I now find there are three volumes:    ‘A Norfolk Diary – Passages from the Diary of The Rev Benjamin John Armstrong, Vicar of East Dereham 1850 – 88’, published in 1949, edited by his grandson Herbert Armstrong; ‘Armstrong’s Norfolk Diary, further passages from the diary of the Reverend Benjamin John Armstrong’, published in 1963, edited by Herbert Armstrong ; and  ‘Under the Parson’s Nose’, published in 2012, edited by his great grandson Christopher Armstrong.  There are some entries which are common to more than one book, but one may give more detail of the entry than another.

As I said last time, there are many names mentioned in these publications.  They would be particularly worth reading if you have nineteenth century ancestors in Norfolk who were clergy or landowners, since there are descriptions of many social engagements.  But even if, like me, your ancestors were humble ag labs, the books give some valuable background information which would have had an impact on those ancestors, mentioning for example periods of drought and extreme cold, town festivities and tragedies and national and international events which our ancestors would undoubtedly have been aware of, such as the Crimean War, the death of Prince Albert and various rail disasters and shipwrecks.  The number of deaths from smallpox in 1872, for example, must have been a worrying time.

I have been trying, since last time, to do some background research on some of the more ‘ordinary’ people mentioned, using the parish registers and sometimes the British Newspaper Archive to see what light they can shed.

Could John Flowers be one of your ancestors?  25th January 1854 “old John Flowers…is a pious and, in person, a beautiful old man, who, notwithstanding he lives 3 miles from the Parish Church, sits regularly every Sunday  on the pulpit steps, in devout attention and occasionally in the sermon murmurs approbation”.  14th July 1856 “likely to die from mortification in his foot”.  I found his burial entry on 7th September 1856, aged 83.

Another long-lived parishioner was Benjamin Tollady of Hoe, who was buried on 17th April 1859:  “one of those righteous peasant patriarchs…the last of his days were spent in saying the Creed and The Lord’s Prayer…he could not read and had worked hard all through life until he lost an arm, amputation being necessary from a thorn prick from which mortification ensued”.  The burial register gives his age as 97.

Other diary entries comment on unusual names.  1st April 1864 (not, as it turns out, an April Fool):  “a poor woman whose child is about to be baptized will call her Withburga, after our local saint”.  I found the baptism entry on 6th April – parents Robert and Perey Peake.  St Withburga’s well was a notable feature in the churchyard, which Rev Armstrong took pains to have tidied up in the early years of his ministry in East Dereham.

The baptism of Withburga Peake

On 25th December 1866 the Revd Armstrong conducted the wedding of one Mahershallalashbaz Tuck. “He accounted for the possession of so extraordinary a name thus:  his father wished to call him by the shortest name in the Bible and for that purpose selected ‘Uz’, but the clergyman making some demur, the father said in pique, if he can’t have the shortest name, he shall have the longest.”  It turns out from the marriage register that the bridegroom was an innkeeper – I should think pronouncing his name was a challenge for his customers when they’d had a merry evening!

The marriage of Mahershallalashbaz Tuck

On other occasions the Revd Armstrong comments on the disparity of ages in marriage couples.  On 9th January 1877 he married his organist, John Upchurch Martin, to Eliza Smith.  He was 66 and a widower and she was 28.  On 19th September 1861 he married James Elvin, a widower aged 70, to Maria Moore aged 45.  James was a coachmaker, and a bit of detective work in the censuses indicates that he did quite well for himself since in 1851 he was employing 21 men in his business.

The Revd Armstrong was certainly not afraid to say what he thought of someone, and his disapprobation of ‘dissenters’ is a regular feature.  On 10th October 1871 he mentions the Andrews family whom he was pleased to have “rescued from dissent”.  He was obviously encouraged when on 15th February 1878 Mr Tyas, the town’s Congregational Minister, came to see him about “leaving dissent and asking to be put in the way of becoming a clergyman of the Church of England”.  On Easter Day in 1862 he conducted the wedding of two parishioners who I think had been cohabiting, this following a conversation he had had with the man in question only the month before when he expressed the opinion that he was “fast going to ruin in spiritual and temporal matters”.  There was only one wedding recorded in the register on that day – that of David Gudlestone/Girdlestone, a hairdresser, and Elizabeth Spurrell.

Despite his apparently  forthright manner, his pastoral care was, however, obviously appreciated by many.  On 3rd November 1853 we read “was surprised to see a Chelsea Pensioner in the garden, in all the glories of cocked hat and scarlet coat.  It turned out to be old Nicholas Peake, late a parishioner of Hoe.  He had left the Hospital for a holiday and had brought me some flower roots as a present in acknowledgment of former kindness”.    Ancestry has a reference to a Private Nicholas Peake, birth date about 1780 in Hoe, who enlisted in the 63rd Regiment of Infantry in 1808 and was discharged in 1825.

The Revd Armstrong suffered his own personal trials and tragedies over the years.  His diary entries record the death of a baby daughter, his concerns over what he saw as the unwise marriage of another daughter, worries about a son in the army, a nephew in a mental hospital, the deaths of his parents and sister in quick succession.  But through the years you also get a strong sense of the integrity and honesty of a man with a strong sense of vocation and a love of the people he served in East Dereham for over 30 years.




Don’t just book it….

“Mr Cook of Leicester having planned an excursion to North Wales and Ireland, and undertaking to take any individual from Dereham to Dublin and back, first class, for 42s, I thought it a chance not be thrown away.”  So reads the entry for 17 September 1855 in the diary excerpts of The Revd Benjamin Armstrong, one time Vicar of East Dereham in Norfolk.

It was while browsing the Norfolk shelves at the Society of Genealogists that I chanced upon this publication:  ‘A Norfolk Diary – Passages from the Diary of The Rev Benjamin John Armstrong, Vicar of East Dereham 1850 – 88’.  Flicking through the pages I could see at once that it would be fascinating reading, but it was near closing time and there was no name index, so reluctantly I put it back on the shelf whilst taking note of the title.  This volume was published in 1949, edited by his grandson Herbert Armstrong.

Happily I was able to find a copy of the book through Amazon and have enjoyed reading it immensely.  I also found that there was a second book of excerpts published in 2012 with the title ‘Under the Parson’s Nose’, this one edited by his great grandson Christopher Armstrong.  For anyone with an interest in East Dereham in particular but also an interest in the social history of mid nineteenth century Norfolk, these books are invaluable and I would really commend them.

The character and views of the Revd Benjamin Armstrong really come through – his integrity, his concern for the poor, his enjoyment of travel, his love of his family, but also his firmly-held High Church position and abhorrence of poor preaching.

These are name-rich books, particularly worth reading if you have clergy ancestors in Norfolk or ones who moved in the higher echelons of society.  There are descriptions of frequent dinner parties, garden parties, concerts etc as well as meetings of local clergy.  There are plenty of descriptions of pastoral visits to the poor and needy, but frustratingly those indviduals are usually not named.  What I would like to do is try to match some of the specific references to burials etc with entries in the parish registers to see what light they can shed.

It was, however, greatly ironic that I should read the 17 September 1855 entry on the very day that we heard the news that the Thomas Cook travel company had collapsed.  I believe that the company had already been going for about 14 years when Revd Benjamin Armstrong and his father ventured to Dublin via Holyhead, visiting Bangor and Snowden on the way back.  He is fairly scathing of what he saw in Dublin, despite declaring it to be a ‘fine city’.

Three years later Revd Benjamin Armstrong chose to join another Cook’s excursion, this time to Scotland, and was again accompanied by his father.  They visited Edinburgh and Glasgow in September 1858 and greatly enjoyed the scenery on the drive from Callendar to Trossachs:  “One feels, on such occasions, the desire to keep silence in order to enjoy the great luxury of contemplating the wonderful works of God”.  Unfortunately the combination of a talkative driver and an annoying fellow passenger made silent contemplation impossible!  Such are the risks of group tours, I guess, but risks which thousands have taken in order to enjoy organised travel around the world with Thomas Cook over the last 178 years.

The Revd Benjamin Armstrong certainly found travel informative:  “One is better able to judge of people and things by coming in personal contact with them, than by all the descriptions in the world”.