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 www.brighton.ac.uk/screenarchive .  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)

Celebrations and Commemorations

I’ve had a couple of lovely surprises recently:  the first was a few weeks ago when our daughters and their husbands took us out to lunch.  This was arranged by them some months ago as a way of celebrating our Pearl wedding anniversary with us.  The six of us going out for lunch was what we were expecting.  However, on our arrival at the pub in question, we were taken through to the function room at the rear.  To our total astonishment there assembled were my husband’s parents and sister, my Mum, my brother and all his family, and a number of our close friends!  We had not suspected a thing.  Apparently my daughters grabbed a sneaky look at my address book as long ago as Mothering Sunday in order to find some contact details!  The expression on my face said it all – the photo taken by my brother was hilarious.  I’ve never been the recipient of a surprise party before, but down the generations isn’t that what people have often done for one another to celebrate and demonstrate their appreciation of each other? (I recall the surprise party we ourselves organized for my Dad’s 70th birthday).

Total surprise!

The other surprise was just last night.  There I was in bed reading Family Tree Magazine (as is my wont).  I turned the page and there staring me in the face on page 57 was the name of my own family history blog ‘Family History Musings by Marian’ in large letters!  Paul Carter, in October’s ‘Techy Tips’, was reviewing none other than my own blog!  Yes, I was certainly astonished by that.  Some time ago the magazine was asking people to be in contact if they had their own family history website or blog and accordingly I emailed in with details of what inspired me to set up my blog in the first place and how I use it to consolidate and focus my research.  I hadn’t thought much more about it until there it was staring me in the face last night!  How very exciting!  And it coincides with the 4th anniversary of my blog – a great way to celebrate.

Family Tree magazine
Family Tree article Oct 2019

Not a celebration, but an important commemoration took place last week but was one that could easily have been missed since it was so low key:  80 years since the outbreak of the Second World War.  A few twitter posts recalled the anniversary which my Mum remembers so well.  She was 9 at the time.  Thanks to her Mum’s diaries I know exactly what she was doing:   “Cloudy, still warm.  Alf came up to Brook for breakfast then back to Granny’s for rest of day.  War declared on Germany.  Alf and I went to Church 6.30pm then spent an hour with Will, Alice, Bertie and Florrie.”  Mum remembers hearing the news of the outbreak of war on the radio at her Aunty Pat’s.  The family were at the end of a fortnight’s holiday with family in Cowfold, Sussex, during which time they were obviously following the political events closely.  At the end of the fortnight the children did not return home to Croydon but stayed on in Sussex and a week later were starting school in Cowfold.  They stayed there for the next two years while their father continued to live and work in Croydon and their mother divided her time between husband and children.  That news broadcast changed their lives irrevocably, as it did for so very many.  It is entirely fitting that this autumn we commemorate the fortitude and bravery of that generation.

Granny’s 1939 diary records the outbreak of WW2

 

 

Life at the asylum

A year ago I made the surprise discovery that my great great grandmother Sarah Bryant died in March 1891 at St Francis Hospital, Haywards Heath, Sussex.

Though it was not exactly joyous reading, I was excited to find so much detail in the Admissions Records for this institution at The Keep in Brighton.  51 year old Sarah was certified to be “suffering from Mania” on her admission on 14th June 1881.  The doctor who had attended her at home declared that she had threatened suicide, was suffering from delusions and was deemed to be a danger both to herself and to others, notably her two daughters living with her.

The ‘Supposed cause – hereditary’ made me wonder what had happened to her own parents. but unfortunately I had had no joy discovering what became of James and Philadelphia Backshell.  However, the fact that Sarah’s husband George had died only 5 years prior to her admission to the asylum did make me wonder whether this had contributed to her mental state.

I looked again at the Civil Registration death indexes.  With the middle name ‘Curtis’, that was definitely him listed in the June Quarter 1876.  But Bethnal Green?  When he had been living in Fulham?

The book I had consulted at The Keep on the history of the Sussex Lunatic Asylum called ‘Sweet Bells Jangled Out of Tune’ by James Gardner looked so interesting that I found and bought a copy online so that I could read the background to this institution.  I learnt that the 1845 Lunatics Asylums Acts required every county to provide adequate accommodation for all pauper lunatics within three years.  The Sussex Asylum opened on 25 July 1859, with 240 patients being transferred there from other asylums, many arriving in a poor condition.  What I read next raised alarm bells regarding George:  the Medical Superintendant wrote: “the male patients last removed from Bethnal Green are the most violent, filthy and neglected lot of patients I have ever met with in all my experiences…and they showed long years of neglect.” 

Bethnal Green!  I wonder….  Returning to Ancestry and the UK Lunacy Patients Admission Registers, there he was at the top of the page, admitted 19 May 1876, asylum ‘Bethnal’.  And it recorded that he died there less than a month later on 27 June. There is no clue as to the reason for admission, and a post on the Rootschat site says that there are unfortunately no surviving records for that Asylum.  However, I could still apply for the death certificate.  This gave me the information that the cause of death was “effusion on the brain”, which I supect might be a brain haemorrage.

George Curtis Bryant
UK Lunacy Patients Admission Registers on Ancestry

So no real clue as to what had tipped George over the edge in 1876 and I certainly hope that the conditions there had improved from those found in 1859.  I do wonder whether these circumstances contributed to Sarah’s illness.  The doctor reported that she “seems lost and appears to have a dread of something”.  Poor woman.   Looking again at what might have happened to Sarah’s mother, this time I found Philadelphia Backshell on someone else’s tree on Ancestry with the details that she died on 28 February 1853 at Union House, East Grinstead.  In other words, the dreaded workhouse.  She was only 50 years old, so was she ‘just’ poor and incapable of looking after herself (her husband was still alive) or was she, too, suffering from mental illness?  Maybe the assertion that Sarah’s illness was ‘hereditary’ was to some extent true.

However, I was heartened to read in ‘Sweet Bells Jangled Out of Tune’ of the conditions at The Sussex Asylum (St Francis hospital).  By 1886 it was considered to be one of the best in the country.  The ethos was that of trying to cure patients rather than just lock them up. Regular walks were organized, contact with the outside world was considered important and sports were encouraged.  Visiting day was Wednesday and patients were encouraged to write letters to their families.  There were education classes and patients were encouraged to do farm work, laundry and needlework.  There was an asylum band and concerts and patients had access to books and newspapers.   Attention was given to a decent diet.  Wards had pictures, plants and simple ornaments to make them a little more homely.

The care of those with mental illnesses has in many respects come a long way since 1881, though today the funding of treatment, especially for young people, is woefully inadequate.  I do hope that Sarah was well cared for in these surroundings.

St Francis Hospital

Photograph taken 28 November 2003 © Norman Wigg. Source Historic England Archive ref: 303024

Happy Anniversary!

Well today is the third anniversary of my family history blog!  I can’t quite believe that I’ve been doing it for so long, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to look back over the subjects I have written about during that time.

My computer records tell me that this is my 88th blog post.  From the outset I wanted to write about thoughts that occurred to me both while making progress with my family history research and in just normal everyday life, since the topic of family history is never far from my mind. So what subjects have I tackled over these three years?

I’ve written, unsurprisingly, of trips I’ve undertaken with primary research very much in mind.  I started out three years ago writing about our trip to Norfolk to research both the George family of East Dereham and the Muskett family of various locations in that county.  I talked about visiting Norfolk Record Office and the Norfolk Family History Society’s research base at Kirby Hall as well as our tour round a number of villagesI’ve subsequently written about visits to West Sussex Record Office, researching the Mitchell family and The Keep in Brighton, looking at Combridges and Bryants.

There have been other opportunities to undertake what you might call ‘family history tourism’:  visiting West Grinstead in Spring 2017, Staffordshire in May 2017 and Chalvey in the summer of 2017.  More recently there has been our memorable trip to France and Belgium this Spring, marking the centenary of William Wakefield’s death.

I have written about types of resources often used in family history:  wills, newspaper archives and inquests, for example.  Then there have been artefacts which have proved a trigger for a train of thought:  buttons, a doll’s house, Christmas toys, old photos, memorable trees as well as the ‘mystery object’ of early 2017.

A couple of authors, namely Jane Austen and Flora Thompson, have been the inspiration for blogs and I have dipped into a couple of antiquarian books on Sussex, too.

Whilst ancestral occupations is an area that I think I could explore more fully in the future, I have frequently written about other family activities such as gardening, marmalade making and picking winterpicks.

Overall I’m pleased with the eclectic mix and I hope that you, too, have enjoyed the variety and will continue to post your comments.

Now, what shall I write about next….?

Winterpicks

Continuing, in fits and starts, my transcription of Granny’s 1938 diary, I had been pleased to see that they had managed a week’s holiday in Worthing at the end of August.  Granny had writtten to Mrs Wenham, who kept the Guest House, back in June and received a reply a few days later.  On Saturday 27 August they set off early for Worthing.  I very much enjoyed reading of the holiday:  buying sea shoes, walks on the prom, afternoons spent in various parks, and the children digging in the sand and having pony rides.  Then on the day before departure there had been a bus trip to Salvington, to the Downs, “picking winterpicks”.

‘Winterpicks’ did not mean anything to me and a quick Google search did nothing to enlighten me.  “I bet it’s a Sussex dialect word for something else” I thought to myself.  The family history community is amazingly helpful to fellow enthusiasts:  I had a sudden idea to post the query on the Sussex Family History Group facebook page.

10 minutes later there was a reply to my post from a fellow member in Australia! She had found a reference in Google Books referring to Blackthorn fruit.  Ah!  The fruits of the blackthorn are commonly known as sloes!  Within half an hour someone else had contributed that sloes make good wine, as well as being useful for flavouring gin, and someone else had commented that there is a Winterpick Farm near Horsham.  And then someone else shared a link to another online book.  How amazing!  As with other discussion threads on the site, people are so happy and willing to share their knowledge with one another.

Well the holiday came to an end and the family returned to Croydon.  Two weeks later in the diary I read the entry “Corked the winterpick wine up”.  There we are: sloe-picking ready for wine-making.

Of course I should have asked Mum first.  As soon as I mentioned it she said that she grew up knowing about winterpicks and that it was years before she knew there was another name for them.

A few days later it occurred to her to dig out a notebook of Granny’s containing all kinds of recipes and tips.  There she found the recipe for Winterpick wine, sandwiched between those for Elderberry wine and Dandelion wine!  Amazing.

This summer when we hopefully have our habitual few days in Worthing, I think we should look for winterpicks and maybe even give Granny’s recipe a go.  I’ll let you know how we get on!

Winterpicks
Extracts from ‘Woodlands, heaths and hedges’ by William Coleman

 

 

Winterpick wime
Granny’s Winterpick wine recipe

What happened to Sarah Bryant?

What indeed!

I went to the Record Office with a list of things to look at, and the last item was to find out what happened to Sarah Bryant.  Or more specifically, “what happened to Sarah Bryant (née Backshell) and her daughter Georgiana after 1881?”

It wasn’t until after lunch that I made it that far down the list.  I was at The Keep in Brighton and had spent a fruitful morning taking advantage of access to FindMyPast.  But now for Sarah Bryant, my great great grandmother, who was in Newhaven at the time of the 1881 census with her 26 year old daughter Georgiana.  Her husband George had died five years earlier, aged only 50, and it seems that Sarah had moved from London back to Sussex, the county of her birth, to be nearer relatives.  I looked for her in 1891 to no avail.  Then I looked for Georgiana and found her in the household of William and Harriet Wise and family in Brighton where she was described as a niece.  Despite being now aged 36 she had no occupation.  In 1901 she was still with them in Pelham Street and again in 1911, this time in Kensington Place, now apparently 54 but single and with no occupation.  So next I needed to look for a death for Sarah and I quickly found a likely civil registration entry of March Quarter 1891, Lewes Registration District, aged 61.

Turning to the Sussex Family History Group database I thought I would look for Sarah’s burial.  I could find nothing.  I turned for help to the volunteers in the SFHG room.  With no likely matches on their database we tried Ancestry, and up popped an intriguing entry just below the civil registration details:  UK Lunacy Admissions.  Clicking through, it revealed a national list of Asylum Admissions records, with the information that Sarah A Bryant, female pauper, was admitted 14 June 1881 and died 11 March 1891.  Ok, that was progress – but admitted to where?  It didn’t say.  This time a member of The Keep staff came to my assistance, suggesting St Francis Hospital, Haywards Heath.  We looked at the online catalogue and found the relevant entry and ordered up the document.  He was quite excited about this too, producing a book on the history of the Sussex Lunatic Asylum called ‘Sweet Bells Jangled Out of Tune’ by James Gardner and telling me that the building is now luxury flats – the one his friend has just bought is where the toilets used to be!

Fifteen minutes later I was looking at the documents relating to Sarah’s time in the Asylum.  The first document was the Notice of Death, stating the apparent cause of death to be disease of the heart.  The next document was entitled Notice of Escape.  It seems that at 7.15pm on 20th July 1881 Sarah managed to escape; however her freedom was very shortlived as she was recaptured and brought back at 7.40pm the same evening.

The third document was the Notice of Admission.  She was certified to be “suffering from Mania” on her admission on 14th June 1881.  She was described as aged 51, a widow, abode Newhaven, religion Church of England.  Was this her first attack? Yes.  Duration?  About a fortnight.  Her next of kin was given as her son, Arthur Curtis Bryant of Chapel Place, Belgrave Square, London.

And then the Admission document got even more interesting.  Whether suicidal – “has threatened”, Dangerous to others – “yes”.  Oh dear, what indeed had happened to Sarah?

She was examined by a doctor at her home in Newhaven the previous day.  His comments make uncomfortable reading:  “she says that she has been poisoned and that she is on fire.  Is very excitable, talks in a rambling manner.  Seems lost and appears to have a dread of something”.  “Georgina Bryant her daughter says that she has threatened to cut off her head and to cut her own throat”.  Harriet Wise was also in attendance when the doctor examined Sarah and I wonder whether she will turn out to be a sister of Sarah.  Likewise a Frances Jeffrey was also present, described as a sister in law.  I need to work out the relationships there.

Poor Sarah and poor Georgiana.  It must have been a traumatic time for all of them.  I wonder whether Georgiana or any of the other relations visited Sarah during the almost 10 years that she was in the asylum?  I wonder how Sarah was treated and cared for?

And one more thing – I noticed on the Admissions document the entry ‘Supposed cause – hereditary’.  This leads me to wonder how they came to that conclusion.  Did a similar thing happen to either of her parents?  I’m now itching to discover what happened to James and Philadelphia Backshell, her father and mother…

Haywards Heath Asylum
St Francis Hospital (Asylum) Haywards Heath, Sussex

 

A Walk round West Grinstead

(OS Explorer Map 134)

My visit to the exhibition at Partridge Green a few weeks back made me think how lovely it would be to explore some of the footpaths in that area, and dry weather over the Easter weekend was a perfect opportunity to do so.

We drove over to West Grinstead and parked at what used to be West Grinstead station, just off the A272.  The platform  and station sign are still there, the line having now become the Downs Link walking and cycle path which eventually ends at Shoreham.

West Grinstead station
West Grinstead station

We walked north on that path for a little way, before bearing off to the left through some beautiful bluebell woods en route to Newhouse Farm.  From there we headed south, crossing the A272, and walking straight through Park Farm.  This is now the setting for a number of exclusive-looking houses, but somewhere amongst them must be the house where my great great grandparents, Thomas and Eliza Philpott, lived.  At this point I was particularly excited  – Granny’s other Grandfather, Thomas Mitchell, was a woodman on the West Grinstead estate, and as we passed lots of coppiced woods I could imagine that perhaps he had once worked in those woods – they were beautiful, with bluebells, primroses and orchids. 

We joined Green Lane and continued to cross West Grinstead Park.  The house itself is long gone, but my ancestors would have been very familiar with the terrain.  A couple of women were tending to some sheep in a pen.  On enquiry I learned that they were South Downs Sheep – a most attractive breed, with their lovely, woolly round faces.

South Downs sheep

 

Park Stews WG

 

 

 

 

The Park Stews which we crossed presumably once supplied fish for the big house.

As we headed towards the B2135 we had a lovely view of the Steyning Road Lodges, where my Granny had lived.

Steyning Lodges WG
West Grinstead church

 

 

 

 

 

Crossing the road, the path rose to a crest, from where Chanctonbury Ring was clearly visible.  I had never realised that before.  West Grinstead church then came in sight, and we entered the churchyard through a rear gate.

Within a few moments I was able to locate the grave of my great grandparents, William and Mary Mitchell, due to its strange shape.

Grave of William and Mary Mitchell
Interior West Grinstead church

 

 

 

 

 

The Church being open was an added bonus, (Easter flower arranging being in progress), so we took the opportunity to look inside.  I had forgotten that the pews had the names of the properties on them, presumably where families paid to have that particular seat.

Crossing back over the B2135 the path then cut across the corner of West Grinstead Park, past another copse with beautiful bluebells, and came out onto Park Lane. Thomas Mitchell might have walked that path on his way to Church. The footpath the other side heading due East rose to rejoin the Downs Link path, where we turned north to arrive back at the station car park.

We had planned to have lunch at the Green Man at Jolesfield (my Granny’s father’s cousin George Mitchell had been the licensee there at one time), but despite advertising ‘bar meals’ outside, the choice of food seemed to be rather ‘gastro’ and with no staff in evidence to serve us anyway, we abandoned that idea and went down to the Partridge at Partridge Green where we enjoyed a very nice bar meal.

The Green Man, Jolesfield

It was a very pleasant walk and the opportunity to walk the paths trodden by my ancestors, appreciating the landscape they knew, was very special.