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My New Column in Chronicle Newspaper

Just recently, I was in discussion with our local newspaper about writing a regular Family History feature.

Designed to share my expertise and to pass on a few tips to those researching their own family tree, I will aim to add a little local colour.

In my first article, I covered ‘Fustian Cutters’ …. anyway, here is the article:

I traced my family back to 1487!

So, you have bought a subscription to a family history site and started tracing your family history? “How far back have you got?” is probably the first question that anyone will ask. People expect that the further back your tree reaches, the better it is and certainly the more impressive it would be.

With the profusion of magazines dedicated to family history and the increasing number of TV programs featuring celebrities tracing their families, do-it-yourself genealogy is becoming even more popular. And, with more family history data being published online, almost daily it seems, the ‘easier’ it is to discover your past.

Indeed, I did once have a client say to me that she had traced her family back to 1487 and she just wanted me to ‘fill in the gaps’ by researching the broader family detail – siblings and their partners, where they lived, the work they did, have I got any skeletons?, that sort of thing.

The starting point for my research was her grandparents, let’s call them Jack and Jill Brown – she had their marriage certificate and could tell me they had three children between 1905 to 1910 in Congleton. The family were indeed on the 1911 Census and I was able to trace the line back to the 1850’s without complication, painting the family picture vividly.

One point of interest was that Peter Brown, like others in his line, was a Fustian Cutter working in a local mill – fustian was a kind of coarse cloth made of cotton and flax and more recently a thick, twilled cotton cloth with a short pile or nap, a kind of cotton velvet or corduroy – a cutter had the job of lifting and cutting the threads by inserting a long thin knife into the loops and the threads as the fustian was stretched over rollers. The cloth was then brushed to raise the pile.

Peter Brown, according to the 1881 census, was born in 1842 at Sutton near Macclesfield – he had five children with his wife Elizabeth from Marton. Crucially, as it turned out, Peter’s widowed father-in-law, Jack White, a farrier was living with them.

And this is where the client’s tree went ‘wrong’ – there were three Peter Browns born in Sutton that year and the client had relied on a family tree she had found online to pick the ‘right’ one – her Peter Brown Married Elizabeth Smith, a spinster, of Saughton [over on the Wirral].

A search for a marriage between a Peter Brown and an Elizabeth White in Cheshire threw up just the one record in 1869 – when the certificate came through, it confirmed that we had the right man this time – Elizabeth’s father was a farrier and Peter’s residence at the time of the marriage concurred with the 1871 census entry.

In the end, we got back to 1763 before the records became too sketchy to rely on. Local parish church registers of births, marriages and deaths varied massively in the detail recorded before Rose’s Act in 1812. Even then, there was not a record of a birth as such but of a baptism – a typical entry may have been “Aug 13th, George, the son of Richard Smith, Withington” with no mention of the father’s occupation or the mother, certainly not her maiden name a birth. If the curate was meticulous, he may have also entered the birth date.

Thankfully, Mrs Brown was very happy with the tree I produced, learning far more about her forebears than she had expected. The last time I heard from her, she had just tracked down the graves of her great-great grandparents.

The lesson from all of this is quite simple – never rely on unsubstantiated ‘facts’ just because they ‘fit’ and produce a long tree, rather find the evidence each step of the way.

In this series, I will seek to help you uncover your own past by sharing the skills that I have learned and used.


Footnote : For more on Fustian Cutters, visit the Mow Cop Interactive website

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