Managing Expections

September 15, 20208:11 amLeave a Comment

Agricultural workers in Headley, Hampshire. Reproduced by kind permission of John Owen Smith

A couple of weeks ago I received an email from a lady who was tracing her family history and had found that her 3 x great grandfather had moved from Aldeburgh in Suffolk to Guildford between 1841 and 1851.  The man was an agricultural labourer and the main focus of her enquiry was that she wanted to know why he moved.  He was married, with two children but that was all she knew.

I had to smile when I read the last sentence of her email which was “I’m sure you will be able to tell me why they moved”.

I so wish I could and I’m immensely flattered that she thinks I could!  I can give reasons why they might have moved such as agricultural depression, offer of a job in the area, moving nearer to relatives or friends, an urgent need to start a new life.. the list goes on.

Quite a lot of family history boils down to managing expectations.  I’ve often said that if your ancestors were not rich and/or famous, mentally ill, criminal or destitute there is less likelihood of you finding very much in the way of documented personal details about their lives.  That doesn’t mean that you won’t find anything, just don’t expect very much.

One thing to always bear in mind is to ask yourself why would records have been produced of particular events and if they were, why would they have been kept?  Think of your own records and what you keep and what you don’t.  Would your descendants be able to trace your every moment through the records you might leave behind?  Generally our forebears didn’t leave much of a paper trail in their lives, especially if they couldn’t read or write.  Before PAYE, taxation records, credit agreements, mortgages, there really wasn’t much to write down which might give clues as to what they did and why.  For example, how many of us have ‘missed’ children who were born and died between two census returns?  I know I have.  Trouble is, we don’t know what we don’t know.

However, I have a ‘glass half full’ attitude to research and I think it’s important to make sure that we consider every tiny piece of information we can find and make sure we wring everything that is useful from it.

For example, poor rates.  I like poor rates but they don’t give a huge amount of information.  You will often simply get a name and how much they are paying.  So what does that tell us?

Well, at a basic level it tells us:

  • That our ancestors were living in a particular parish at a particular time
  • That they were financially stable enough to be paying poor rates
  • The amount they are paying will give us some idea of their financial status

Also, the amount of land that they are paying poor rates on can occasionally tell us something.  I was trying to find someone who was a blacksmith in the Dorking area and I found 2 people with the same name both living in Capel.  One was paying poor rates on over 30 acres of land, while the other 1 rood (a quarter of an acre).  We surmised that a blacksmith might be renting a smaller area for his forge and outbuildings than say a farmer, so we were able to work out the likelihood of which one was which.

So actually this one short entry has told us quite a lot.

And it can work the other way around!  When we see on the census that our ancestor was an ‘Ag Lab’ it’s tempting to assume that we’re not going to find anything else about him.  However, let’s think about the document as a whole, not just our ancestor.  What are the people around him doing?  What are the large farms in the area where he might have been employed?  Are there any records for these farms among the catalogues of various archives?

For example, I was researching a family in Hampshire on the 1881 census and found the head of the household described as an Ag Lab at Brooks in Kings Somborne in Hampshire.  A little rummaging around in the Hampshire Record Office catalogue revealed that Brooks was a dairy farm, so now I had a pretty good idea what type of agricultural work he did.  Newspapers are also useful sources for trying to find out what type of farms were in the area and don’t forget, the county record office and local studies library will generally have a pretty good idea of what type of agriculture flourished in different areas.

Sadly we can’t always find out what our ancestors’ lives were like to the last detail but there are plenty of contemporary writings which can give us an idea of what life was generally like for people in similar situations.  Tess of the D’Urbervilles (or anything by Hardy) gives us a snapshot of life in agricultural Dorset and Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson offers a similar insight into the countryside of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire.  My friend has ancestors from the Potteries and is enjoying ready the Clayhanger books by Arnold Bennett.  They are a little out of fashion now but provide a wonderful picture of 19th century life in an industrial town.  Living History museums such as Acton Scott in Shropshire even give us a visual impression of how our ancestors lived.

We receive dozens of enquiries every day from people longing to find out more about their ancestors and it is wonderful when we can give a few additional clues.  However, sadly if the records simply aren’t there or not completed particularly well, we are back to supposition and educated guess work.

Roll on the invention of the time machine!!

Keep well and safe and Happy Researching!


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Written by Jane Lewis - Modified by ESP Admin

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