52 Weeks – Strong Women

Gravestone of Charlotte Blaker

The theme this week is Strong Women, timed to coincide with International Women’s Day.

To me, a strong woman is someone who shows grit and strength of character in the face of adversity. Someone who just keeps on keeping on. These are the sort of characteristics that are hard to tell over centuries based only official records. Those women I  knew personally who were strong I can’t describe here.  It is too personal to me and my relationship with them.

However, when I am working on my family tree there are women where I read through the record who I think “How did you manage that? That sounds terribly hard!” Those are the situations I shall describe here. I may even be able to find some names that go with the situations!


Before the days of modern medical practices, vaccines and antibiotics the death rate for infants was very high. There is family after family in my tree where multiple children die at just a few years old.

My 3x G grandmother Charlotte Eccott Blaker (1803-1877) had 15 children, 8 of whom died as infants.

Large Family

My Mum had a saying that “You lost a tooth for every child that you had”  While, luckily, this is no longer the case with modern nutrition it is a saying that showed how hard it was on a woman’s body having child after child.

There were some physically strong women in my family. Charlotte Eccott Blaker, that I mentioned previously had 15 children and lived to the age of 74. Agnes Mary Griggs Newall (1858-1943), the wife of my 2xG Uncle,  had 8 children and lived until she was 83.


Many women were widowed relatively early leaving them bringing up a young family. I see them year after the in the census eking out a living as boarding house owners or laundresses.  Hard physical work and low pay, but keeping a roof over the family’s head.


In the 1800’s transportation to Australia was a common punishment for a range of crimes. In 1839, my 19 year old  4x G Uncle Emanuel Cook was transported to Australia for burglary.  He served his sentence, married, had children and died there at the age of 59. He may have been a bad un’ but his mother, Elizabeth Abbott Cook my 4-G grandmother and his sisters never saw him again


Around the turn on the C19 emigration to America, Canada and Australia was at its height. The majority of the families in my tree at that time have at least one member that tried their luck in the ‘Land of Opportunity’. In today’s time of instant communication, it is hard to imagine what it was like to wave your family off and then not hear from them again for weeks. Maybe only seeing them every 10 years or so. That must have been a bereavement in itself.


Women’s stories are harder to track down than men’s. Their names are lost and their achievements are less likely to be recorded. It is a source of frustration to me that I can only track my direct female line back to my 4x G Grandmother in Freystrop, Wales.

My life is so much easier my life is than my ancestors’ lives were. I have experinced better healthcare, fewer deaths and less physical labour. I count myself lucky that I have not needed to be as strong as many of them.



52 Weeks – Heirloom

Wooden lasts

Many of the heirlooms I have are a bit of a mystery to me. I discovered a number of family items in the attic when I cleared the house after my Mum died. These included items belonging to my paternal Grandma, who lived with us for a number of years until she died. Identifying who heirlooms belonged to is a puzzle, largely based on which box I found the item in and what else was in the box!

These shoemakers’ lasts came from a box belonging to my Grandma. So, despite the fact I know there are shoemakers and cordwainers on my Mum’s side – mostly following the military around (who always need boots!), I must deduce they belong to her side of the family.

Who does my heirloom belong to?

Wandering back up Grandma’s family tree I can only find a couple of Shoemakers and Bootmakers in the census records. My 3x Great Grandfather Thomas Wood and his son Thomas. I guess they are his!

The elder Thomas Wood was born in Chevening, Kent in 1798 and after he married Sophia Bowles in 1822 he moved about 10 miles to Farningham, in Kent where he stayed for the rest of his life. It appears that Farningham was a thriving community with up to 6 stagecoaches passing through each day, so I guess there were enough people to provide a shoemaker with a living. His 4th child, Jane was my 2xGreat Grandmother.

The unanswered question this leaves me with is “Are these lasts actually old enough to be his?” There is very little wear on them and internet searching has not revealed much to help me date them.

So, what can I tell?

  • The lasts are small and narrow compared to modern shoes and are shaped, so you can tell the right foot from the left.
    • This shaping of lasts came in from the mid C19.
  • They have L & R stamped on them in a serif font that is consistent with the time.
  • If I look more closely at how they were made they do seem to straddle that boundary between machine manufacture and handmade items.
    • The screw mechanism is machined, the slot for the metal bar is hand chiselled. The handle for the screw was turned on a lathe.
    • This is consistent with the late C19 when industrialisation was on the rise.

I will continue to search for more information about shoemaking at the end of the C19 but, for the moment, I am satisfied that these lasts belonged to GGG Grandad Thomas Wood!


52 Weeks – Favourite Name

And of course, I’m going to cheat and do two! They are both women and I love these names because they are different from the from the unremitting list of Elizabeths, Marys and Anns that most people in my tree named their daughters.


Wilmot Phillipa Honey,  my 4x G Grandmother, was born in  1764 in Buckland Monachorum, Devon. The family, so far as I can tell, were agricultural labourers. Stubbs’ painting of haymakers dates from about the time that Wilmot was 20.


Haymakers 1785 by George Stubbs
Haymakers 1785 George Stubbs

Honey is such a lovely word isn’t it? It conjures up the feelings of something sweet, golden and soothing. I imagined my ancestor would be golden-haired, until I realised that, coming from Devon, she was likely to have been Celtic and have had dark hair.

Wilmot is apparently a diminutive version of William. It is an uncommon girl’s name and may have been a family name. Sadly none of her children have equally  interesting names


Rosetta Elizabeth Ford was born in Bethnal Green, Middlesex in 1831.

Effie Grey by Millais
Effie Grey by Millais

Rosetta was not a name I had found before and, as two of her daughters have Rosetta included in their name, I was getting quite excited about this being a way to trace the family line through the generations.

A short trawl through the census made me realise that it wasn’t an uncommon name at all! Lots of girls in London at that time had Rosetta somewhere in their name.

The Rosetta Stone reached the British Museum at the beginning of the 19th C and it seems an awful lot of girls were named after it! I realised that it was probably the equivalent of the ways we name children after celebrities these days. Another bright idea hits the dust….

52 Weeks – In the Census

There have been 8 censuses released in the UK.  These show the population every 10 years from the earliest in 1841 to the most recent release in 1911.

It is fascinating to see how the amount of information gathered by the enumerator has grown over the decades.

Basic at First

The earliest one, in 1841, was the simplest. It contained a person’s address,  name, gender, age, occupation and whether they were born in the locality.  As the years progressed the government realised the opportunity to gather more information and started to gather the relationships between people in a household and where they were born.

This information is a treasure trove for people looking for their family history. (Like me!)  The combination and age, place of birth, relationship to others in the household and occupation helps us confirm that we are identifying the same people census to census. It’s not foolproof of course. People forget how old they are, or where they were born. Or lie….. But you can track households down the years with a fair amount of confidence.

And the Children?

One piece of information that we love to pick up from the census is the children in the family. But one of the things that you are never quite sure of is whether you have them all. If a child was born and died between censuses then they don’t show up and you don’t know if you need to try and track anyone down.

The 1911 census added significantly more information to the form, including the number of years a couple had been married, the number of children born to a couple, and the number still living. This is so helpful when trying to identify the number of children in a family, but does highlight the high infant mortality rate, even at the beginning the 20th century.

This snippet here from the 1911 record of my 3x great Uncle John Mercer shows that he and his wife Emma had had 9 children in their 44 years of marriage, but only 5 were still living. 4 of their sons died before the age of 4. I cannot imagine how hard that was for them.

52 Weeks – Longevity

Max age, cleaned up

Most people are aware that hereditary impacts longevity. One question I get asked in a number of roundabout ways by family members is “Will I live a long life?”

Data – I have data!

Manipulating a Gedcom is a pain in the derriere, but Mac Family Tree does some simple reports so what can I see from that?

My family tree is quite broad.  For each of my ancestors, I like to identify their siblings and their siblings’ partners and children in order to get as full a view as possible of their lives. My family goes back 10 generations and contains over 1100 people – small by some people’s I know. But quite a lot of work none the less! Most of the people in my tree date from post-1837, as that is when the Registration Act required everyone to register births, marriages and deaths, and this data is easily available online along with subsequent censuses.

MAx age of full tree

Maybe this is a bit too raw. Not all of those people are related to me, never mind direct ancestors.

OK, so I’ll prune out all the spouses of cousins, and their parents, siblings, nephews and nieces that I have.  That leaves me with how many people? Just over 900. And how good is the quality of the data I have? Not as good as I thought. One branch of the family, that I thought I had covered is no more than a series of name placeholders really. Drat.

Let me go and sort them out!

Oooh – what’s that I’ve found? A man that married his wife’s sister when his first wife died? No – leave it alone, you are getting distracted……

So, How are we doing for Longevity?

Max age, cleaned up

As an analysis it is crude but my conclusion is – not badly, but not brilliantly. The curve peaks at 70/75 for both men and women, and there is not a centenarian in sight! Women do quite well at getting into their 90’s though…..

You can see that sad spike at the beginning showing just how many children died under the age of 5 before the days of modern medicine. What doesn’t show in this view, is that longevity has steadily increased in my family over the C20.

OK then family, you’ll probably make your 3 score years and 10 but after that, your genetics aren’t much help.

Maybe this means I should squander my pension on travel and fine living, but in the meantime, I’m just off down to the gym……

52 Weeks – Favourite Photo

Grandparents and map

Oh, what a dilemma! Out of all of the photos I have which one is my favourite?

OK, I know which one it is!

And now I’ve decided, where is it??

<Comes back two days later having finally found the correct box. I really must organise these photos somehow…>

Here is it! Well, it’s not one photo, it’s two photos, but they are a matching pair. And it’s left me with a quandary.

Should I even share this?

Favourite Photo of Grandparents


That’s quite shocking these days, isn’t it? Could someone take it seriously?

But, it is what it is, a window into the past. Let me tell you about it.

It is of my grandparents, Mick and Babs Mercer in about 1934. Not a studio picture, but a couple of snaps that they took themselves. It is my favourite as it shows both my Grandma’s wry and dry sense of humour and the fun she and Grandad had together when they were young and courting.

This pair of photos is them in their cycling gear and Grandma labelled it “Heil Hitler”.  The title is in mockery, not admiration and refers to the similarity of what they are wearing to the uniform of the Hitler Youth Movement. It is before the start of WWII and the later atrocities.

As a photo of its time, it is interesting to me that the rise of Fascism in Germany was newsworthy enough for it to be part of popular culture. It gives an insight into what mattered to them in their world.

When they were courting, and after they were married they used to have days out and holidays by tandem – hence the cycling gear. Here is a corner of a cloth map of the S.W. London Area that they used to plan their trips. The red lines show footpaths. I wonder how many still exist.

Map of S W London 1934



52 Weeks – Start

Engraving of shipwright

I recently found Amy Johnson Crow’s “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks” challenge. The premise of it is that every week she sends a prompt as a basis for a story about an ancestor and then you write whatever comes to mind based on that prompt. So here we go!

This week’s prompt is “Start”. A good question – where do I start? Well, I suppose I can go back to why I started.

Once upon a time….

My Dad’s mother lived with us while I was growing up, she was from a large, extended family and was always telling tales of family events and family jokes and rituals.  As a result, my ancestors and distant cousins have always been very real to me, even though I never met many of them. Through her stories I know their names, their habits and foibles.

Grandma was interested in family history and had a family tree written by one of her cousins. This is now a prized possession of mine as it was written decades before the internet, solely from personal knowledge. It describes the family they knew, with the names that people were actually known by, not just the ones they were christened with.

My first forays into building a family tree were based on conversations with family members and looking at old family birth certificates that I found. I focussed on names and dates for many years as that was all I had available to me.

Happily ever after!

My interest in family history took a huge step forward when information previously kept in archives around the country was digitised and available on the internet.  I can now build the tree further back in time and love to verify family stories from my youth. “What was the name of the pub that G-G- Grandad used to run?”. “Who did go to America?”.

Sadly, of course, by the time it occurred to me to ask “Why” most of my older relatives had died.

The questions that interest me these days are those about the lives my ancestors lived. What did their job entail? Which political events did they live through? What did their home look like? How could they have met their partner? The 52 Ancestors challenge will push me to dig further and learn more about how people lived in past centuries.