I LOVE A GOOD detective story and it’s the detective work involved in researching a family tree that makes it so fascinating. The end result is interesting too, but if you had it handed to you on a plate you’d miss out on the fun and the frustration.
Births and deaths, marriages and census returns give you the bare bones but I like anything that gives me a sideways look at my ancestors, that pops up some tiny detail of their everyday lives that I never imagined that I’d discover.
Any kind of crime is welcome; not for the distress it gave my ancestors of course, but for the intimate details that come out in the testimonies of victim, accused and witnesses which would otherwise have gone unrecorded.
Nineteenth Century Newspapers
Wakefield libraries offer online access to the British Library collection of nineteenth century newspapers. Twenty years ago, before computers came in, I tried going through a run of Victorian copies of The Wakefield Express to try and find reports of the early days of Wakefield Naturalists’ Society, then the Wakefield Natural History and Philosophical Society, but after an hour or two of page turning I came up with nothing.
This morning I’m having a session tracing one line of my family, the Trueloves of Sheffield, that, over three or four generations always included a Joseph.
In seconds I can scan through thousands of pages of complete runs of Victorian newspapers in the British Library collections and turn up stories that I would otherwise stand no chance of stumbling across.
I’m currently reading the details of a charge of larceny brought against my great, great, great grandfather, referred to in the reports as Joseph Truelove senior and one of his sons of the same name. I’ll tell you the whole story later but don’t panic, they were both acquitted (or I might have been writing this from Australia as in 1847 transportation was still an option).
There’s a quote from The Go-Between, ‘the past is a different place’ and I must say that I feel a bit guilty that I just dip into it as though it was a different place, kind of theme park, but to enjoy your visits to the past and feel the emotional tug of a personal connection seems to me a good way to learn a lot about it, to connect all those bits and pieces that you picked up at school or from television documentaries.
But, as I browse through the pages brought up in my search results, certain aspects of the past do look as if they’ve been put together by the overenthusiastic designers of a historical theme park
I love the Birmingham and Derby Junction advertisement (top) on the front page of The York Herald, 10 October 1840, inviting interested parties to deliver Tenders to the Company’s Office. The little engraving features two men in a tender urging on their loco enthusiastically.
And the notice of Joseph (senior, I guess) obtaining a game certificate appears right next to an advertisement for the latest bestseller by Charles Dickens, an author so well-known that they don’t even need to mention his name in the advertisement.
If I’d been concocting a historical newspaper I would never have put that in, it would seem too contrived, like having an Elizabethan character in a novel saying ‘I say, have you seen the new play by William Shakespeare?’
But I better stop getting distracted and continue my search for Truelove . . .