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WW1 Widow’s Penny – A Window to the past

WW1 Widow’s Penny – A Window to the past

Finding a WW1 Widow’s Penny: When sorting out the effects of a deceased relative I happened across an old weighty, partly damaged, envelope.  In the top right hand corner was a pre-stamped mark of a crown surrounded by the words ‘Official Paid’. To the left of this was the remnants of the word ‘service’, ‘vice’.  Below was a stuck on pre-typed address:

244562  Mr C. Miles

Thrift Cottage,


Hythe, Kent.


Another sticker at the bottom states “if undelivered return to: The C.S.O.F (Plaque Section, Ordnance Factories, Royal Arsenal, London, [rest destroyed].

Opening this up I found another envelope inside with the numbers 244562 repeated in pencil – actually scrawled across the envelope. On the flap of this envelope is an embossed seal mark. On opening this I found a black card folded around a large penny like coin and the name of Frederick John Miles in raised print. There was one final article within this envelope, a pre-prepared note from the King on paper headed with the Royal Arms and the words Buckingham Palace. The letter reads “I join with my grateful people in sending you this memorial of a brave life given for others in the Great War” followed by the signature of George V.  It was not the only one, there was also one for Herbert Walter Miles.

So how can this information help a family researcher?  Well, firstly I knew my mother-in-law’s maiden name was Miles and that her mother was Ethel Nancy Miles. A quick search of the 1911 census shows that Frederick and Herbert were Ethel’s brothers and their father was Charles Miles. Frederick was 15 years of age and born abt. 1896 in Folkestone and Herbert was 13, born abt. 1898 in Capel, Kent.  Therefore, Frederick and Herbert were my mother-in-law’s uncles. But what more could I now find out about them and how did Charles Miles come to receive these plaques? It was time to start searching WW1 records to see what could be found.

A quick search of WWI records on did not find any military records for Frederick but his probate records were found. This detailed that he served as a private in the Royal Army Service Corps, dying on the 18 May 1919 at the casualty clearing station Mesopotamia Administration. The records show that he was working in the medical transport section of the RASC. Using his date of death, a search was made on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s website ( This gave one result that showed he was buried at the Tehran War Cemetery. Documents attached to his result page give further information which includes his final resting place reference and two pictures of the cemetery. There are also documents relating to the inscription and headstones. Sadly, his cause of death is not given but as he is interred here, despite dying in 1919, it shows he would have died as a direct consequence of illness or injuries sustained in WW1.  What is nice about this website is that you can download a certificate from the website that gives the name of the solder, service number, position within the army, date of death, a picture of the cemetery and message that commemorates the life of this ancestor.

Herbert too is remembered on the CWGC website. It shows that he was a private with the 7th Battalion, East Surrey Regiment, regimental number: 203033. He died on the 30th November 1917 and is commemorated on Panel 6 of the Cambrai Memorial in Louverval, France. There is also information about who the memorial commemorates, over 7,000 servicemen of the UK and South Africa who died in the Battle of Cambrai in November and December 1917 and whose graves are unknown.  The Findagrave website actually holds a picture of Herbert’s name on the memorial panel along with other members of his regiment.


There are also other war related documents for Herbert. There can be found on and firstly include his medal card which shows he was awarded the British and Victory medals. The second document source on this website is the UK, Soldiers Died in the Great War 1914 – 1919 collection. This shows that Herbert died on the 30th November 1917 (which fits with the Battle of Cumbrai dates) in France and Flanders. It shows his residence as Aldington (which fits the 1911 census) and that he enlisted at Canterbury, Kent.  It also gives his rank as Private and confirms his regiment number as 203033 and reiterates that he died in action. The last record is in the UK, Army Registers of Soldiers’ Effects, 1901 – 1929 collection and show that Herbert left £5 5s 6d.


Ancestry also hold enlistment papers which can give a wealth of information about a soldier. This can include a description, including height, eye colour, hair colour and distinguishing features. Next of Kin is included, marriage can be recorded and children listed as they are born.  Postings are given as well as any disciplinary action, medical records including treatment, and finally discharge details are provided. Sadly, for our family there were no records in this collection for Frederick or Herbert and they were probably destroyed when 60% of the 6.5 million records were destroyed when a bomb blast hit the War Office in London during WW2.


This blog has described several sources you can use to find information on an ancestor who served during WW1. A simple embossed plaque of bronze and a few medals could be all that remains of a man’s life. Whether you call it a “Widow’s Penny”, a “Memorial Plaque” or “Dead Man’s Penny”, there were 1,355,000 of them issued, of which 600 were specially made for the serving women who lost their lives.


For Mr. Charles Miles, he lost both of his sons during this war and then lost his eldest grandson in WW2 and it was he who received the medals and plaques. For my sons, these have been a window into the past to find out the part their great, great uncles played in creating the world they live in today.

Seeking the truth behind your English criminal ancestors

Seeking the truth behind your English criminal ancestors

In researching both for ourselves, and for our clients, we may occasionally unearth criminal ancestors, or information that is difficult to communicate. It is imperative that we frame the happenings of history not only for ourselves, but for our clients. Social context and thorough research are needed to fully understand the lives of all our ancestors – most especially those we may not immediately like.


While researching you discover a new ancestor. With a feeling of excitement as a new generation is about to take shape, you may perform a preliminary online search. Perusing the results, you find a matching criminal record. Do you discard the information? After all, do you really want a criminal in your family tree? How will your client react? Now is not the time to judge an ancestor’s worthiness, but to investigate further and seek the story behind the conviction.


The criminal registers of England and Wales (1791-1892) list a Fanny sentenced to death on the 11th July 1888, at Maidstone Assizes in Kent. Her crime was willful murder.[i] The only other detail provided is a trial date. Trials were well reported in local newspapers, and they can often give more insight into how the trail was perceived and understood by the local public.


A user friendly website for British newspaper research is The British Newspaper Archive, which offers a pay-as-you-go or subscription service. Using the search string “Fanny 1888 death sentence” brings up four articles for the correct date. The Manchester Courier provides the following details:


“At Kent Assizes, at Maidstone, on Wednesday

morning, Fanny pleaded guilty to murdering

her child by drowning it in the sea at Sandgate, on

the 9th inst., when she also attempted to drown her-

self. She persisted in her plea of guilty, and Baron

Huddleston sentenced her to death, without hope of



To discover that an ancestor murdered a child and received a death sentence does not make comfortable reading, and may be extremely difficult to communicate to a client, but additional research does inform the circumstances.


A local Bath newspaper, the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, gives further details, stating that Fanny was the wife of William, a local quarryman, of 2 Richmond Terrace, Dolemeads, Bath, Somerset, and that husband and wife had separated some time ago. It also mentions that Fanny had made a previous suicide attempt by jumping from the pier at Folkestone.[iii]


By adjusting the search term ‘death sentence’ to ‘Sandgate’ further articles were found, showing Fanny had her sentence reduced from death to penal servitude. The report in the Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald reflects on the court case, stating that Fanny came into court with the other prisoners about to be charged with lesser offenses. There was shock in court when she pleaded guilty and her trial was delayed until the other prisoners had given their pleas. It is posited that Fanny was not really aware of what was going on, or of the seriousness of her crime, and once the sentence had been passed she left the court with a female warder as though nothing had happened.  Afterwards a series of communications changed Fanny’s fate. First an unnamed official made a communication to the Judge questioning Fanny’s state of mind. Second, Baron Huddleston wrote to Mr. Matthews, the Home Secretary to plead mercy. This action was supported by a Mr. R. T. Tatham, who contacted Major Ross, M.P. Major Ross then had interviews with the Home Secretary and a reprieve was granted on the grounds that when Fanny walked into the sea, she was not responsible for her actions. The article concludes that Fanny would, in all likelihood, be sent to Broadmoor asylum.[iv] The fact that so many were willing to exert effort on her behalf alludes to extenuating circumstances.


With the knowledge that Fanny would have been a prisoner in the 1890s the 1891 census was searched. She is found in the District Female Prison at Woking in Surrey, listed as being 32, a laundress, married and born in Bath. This allows for a calculated date of birth of about 1859. The prison, Knaphill Women’s Prison housed a majority of the prisoners held on convictions for infanticide. Many inmates originally received the death penalty when convicted of their crime.[v]


With a date, place of birth, the name of husband and an address, Fanny can be located on the 1881 census. Here Fanny, aged 21, was living with her husband William, 24, a stone quarryman, and their daughter Rosa, aged 1. All were born in Bath, Somerset and at the time of the census were living at 3 Laura Terrace, Bath.[vi] If Rosas was their eldest child, an estimated marriage date of about 1879 can be used. William and Fanny Miner were married in the 4th quarter of 1878, in Bath.  William’s father was called Alfred.[vii]


Fanny Miner was enumerated in 1861 living with her father Thomas (27), her mother Eliza (26) and three siblings; also with them is Ester Williams (11) a house servant. Thomas is working as a general labourer.[viii] By 1871 Thomas is listed as a quarryman, the family has grown to include six more children.[ix]


While nothing of note was found while researching the Miner family, the same cannot be said of the family she married into. According to additional research in the British newspapers, Fanny married into a troublesome family. In January 1879 her father-in-law Alfred was summoned to court for the assault of Thomas Gerrish and for threatening Thomas’ son with a gun. William was also implicated and described as an “idle fellow”.[x]


In 1883 the whole family was in court. Fanny was charged that on 5 March 1883 she assaulted Alfred, the landlord of the Olive Branch.  In the report she had gone to the public house to find her husband. Alfred claimed Fanny was abusive and assaulted him but Fanny claimed Arthur assaulted her. Four days later Alfred was charged with assaulting William on the 9 March 1883 and William was charged with the assault of Alfred. The evidence was so conflicting that all the cases were dismissed.[xi] A different article reporting the same date and assault states that Alfred testified Fanny was drunk when the assault took place, however this was denied by PC Dyer who testified in her favor. [xii]


In January 1886 there was another court case, when William was assaulted by three men forcing an entrance into his and Fanny’s home. William was admitted to hospital with injuries to his nose and ribs from where he had been punched and kicked.[xiii] For Fanny, living in the same house with children, this must have been terrifying.


The next step is to discover how Fanny came to be living in Folkestone, Kent, instead of with her husband in Bath. A search of the National Archives online database shows that records are held for Fanny.


The National Archives, which can be searched either in person, or through research services with results being posted, houses the depositions used in her trial, which were taken on the 14th July 1888. These name the deceased child as Eliza and give her age as 3 – 4 months. Dr Marcus George Bateman testified that the child was half the weight she should be at this age, but there were no signs of abuse on the child. He stated that he examined Fanny at the hospital following her admission and she kept repeating “I am mad”. In his opinion she was sober and she stated that her little boy had gone into the sea and she had followed, carrying her baby daughter, to bring him out when a large wave took her and knocked her over.[xiv]  His account of her sobriety was confirmed by Nellie Hollman, a barmaid at the Alexandra Hotel, who stated Fanny came into the hotel at about a quarter past seven and stayed for an hour and a half. She purchased a glass of beer but did not appear drunk.[xv]


In conflict with Dr. Bateman’s testimony were the depositions of two women who walked with Fanny, and her children, to The Alexandra Hotel in Sandgate. Both stated that she was drunk and threatened to drown herself, her son and her baby. The last they saw of Fanny was when she entered the Alexandra Hotel.[xvi]


She was next seen by Richard Callingham, who, in his deposition, saw her walking down the beach at Sandgate, straight into the rough sea with the children. It was he who ran down to the beach and pulled out the young boy and then returned to the water to retrieve Fanny, who by then was unconscious. The baby, Eliza, was missing but was found on the 11 July between 7 and 8 pm, washed up on Folkestone beach by William Thomas Rogers.[xvii]


There is a further deposition from John Taylor, Superintendent of Policing, Folkestone. He stated that he had known Fanny for two to three years and that although married; she was living with John William, the reputed father of her two younger children.


From court, Fanny was sent to Maidstone Prison where she was examined by Francis Pritchard Davis, the chief medical officer and superintendent of the Kent County Asylum, Barming Heath, Maidstone. He spent nearly three hours with Fanny in July 1888 and his letter to Sir Augustus K Stephenson K.C.B. (Knight Commander Order of Bath), Director of Public Prosecutions, gives a deeper insight into the life of Fanny.


He starts by stating that Fanny had married William on the 3rd October 1878 and that she had four children by him. At this time she was a sober woman, but her husband, a quarryman, was a drunkard. In her marriage, she suffered brutality from William, and two of her children had died due to his abuse. Fearing for her life, she left him and moved to Folkestone, gaining employment as a laundress. She worked for four months and then returned to her husband. Two months after returning she became pregnant and he reinitiated his violence towards her. Again she left him, departing for Folkestone where she took up her laundress job once more, lodging with a Mrs. Williams. Also in the household was Mrs. Williams’ husband, William and their son, John. According to his report Fanny then entered a “criminal intimacy” with John which resulted in pregnancy.  Dr Stephenson notes that it was at this time, with the shame of the pregnancy, that Fanny started drinking. John WILLIAMS lost his job as a consequence of their liaison, and he became verbally abusive to her. Being unemployed John too took to drink.


John’s father also treated Fanny badly. On the morning of 15 June 1886 she states that she was “insulted, called a whore” before he violently assaulted her. She had to leave her work and her home, and it was at this point she decided to commit suicide and was charged with trying to throw herself off a pier. She also mentioned the charge of trying to drown her son in a bucket of water but stated the case was dismissed.


The doctor then focused on her daughter, mentioning she was about nine years old (Rosa, from the 1881 census). He refers to this child as “very peculiar” who told lies about her mother. He finished his comments regarding the daughter by stating “I have serious doubts as to the mental soundness of this child”. An uncle, her mother’s brother, Joseph Stagg, was also discussed, and Fanny stated that he was living in an asylum in Wiltshire.


Dr Stephenson next writes about the events following the birth of the newborn child. According to his account, taken from Fanny, Williams became more verbally abusive and was frequently drunk, talking of leaving her and actually going away for a week. On 8 July he informed her he was leaving and would not be back. Fanny then sold items she possessed to raise money which she spent on a drink before walking into the sea with her two young children.[xviii]


In his summary Dr Stephenson records that at the time of the drowning, Fanny was in a state of “acute melancholia” which although exacerbated by the alcohol, was induced by the violence she had faced from her husband and Williams. The fact that her daughter and her uncle were mentally unsound led him to believe that Fanny, although not insane, was not of right mind when she walked into the sea.[xix]


Further papers held by The National Archives provide information regarding her discharge and confirm that she was in the women’s prison in Woking. Seven years from the date her death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment there is documentation regarding her early release. Comments regarding her conduct and industry in prison are graded as “good” as is her bodily health and her mental health is graded as sound. It appears that she was discharged into a home, under license, managed by Mrs. Bramwell Booth with the anticipation she would attain employment as a cook, a job she was doing in the prison. Mrs. Bramwell BOOTH, the daughter-in-law of the founder of the Salvation Army, dedicated herself to improving the lives of women in poverty. There is no evidence within the documents to say whether she actually took advantage of this opportunity but by 24 September 1895 the Convict Supervision Office at New Scotland Yard recommended that the license should be lifted.  The final document is a letter written by Fanny herself, to Sir Matthew White BIDLEY, Secretary of State to thank him for her release from prison without restrictions, dated 5 April 1896.[xx]


After Fanny was released from prison in 1896 she returned to her husband, William, with whom she was enumerated in the 1901 census. Also with them is a five-month-old child.[xxi] Newspaper records show their marriage remained a violent one.[xxii] In Fanny was charged with being drunk and incapable in Claverton Street. She was sentenced to pay a fine of 2s. 6d. or face three days in prison.[xxiii]


Fanny died in the last quarter of 1909 aged 52 in Bath. No cause of death is given.[xxiv]


Fanny appeared to be a difficult or non-desirable ancestor. Research using birth, marriage, death and census records, alongside newspaper articles and court records, portray a very different picture. Records show that only one of her children was fathered by John Williams, that she did not take to alcohol until she was faced with having an illegitimate child, and that there was evidence of mental illness in her extended family. Her conduct in prison was good which ensured her early release.


It is tempting to ‘Google’ new ancestors. When this is done for Fanny it produces two results:


  • A chapter in a book entitled “The Scourge of Demon Drink” depicting Fanny only as a habitual drunk and ‘a baby killer’.[xxv]This is true but lacks background detail.


  • An article on a cervical cord slide bearing the name of a Fanny, dated 18 December 1896. This article links the slide to a Fanny who died in the West-Riding Asylum (Yorkshire) and mistakenly ties her to the Fanny of this article who was still alive in 1896.[xxvi]


Never believe all you read and back up your findings with research. It is important that we conduct thorough research both for ourselves and when researching for clients. This is never more true than when our research leads us to difficult or “undesirable” ancestors.


(Published in the Association of Professional Genealogists March 2016 Magazine)

[i] Criminal Registers. England. Maidstone, Kent. 11 July 1888. Fanny. Collection: England & Wales, Criminal Registers, 1791 – 1892. : accessed 25 August 2015.

[ii] Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser. Saturday 21st July. p. 11G. : accessed 25 August 2015.

[iii] Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette. 1888. Tragic Affair at Sandgate. Thursday 19 July 1888. p.3F. : accessed 25 August 2015.

[iv] Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald. 1888. The Sandgate Murder. The Prisoner Reprieved. Saturday 28th July 1888. p.5e. : accessed 25 August 2015.

[v] Foster, M. (2012). Knaphill (All in one place) Publish Nation Ltd. London. p. 14.

[vi] Census (1881) England. Bath, Somerset. ED. 12.  PN. 2435. p. 30. : accessed 25 August 2015.

[vii] Marriages (CR) England. Bath, Somerset. 4th Quarter 1878. William and MINER, Fanny. Vol. 5c. p. 1071. : accessed 25 August 2015.

[viii] Census (1861) England. Bath, Somerset. ED. 8. SN. 63. PN. 1685. p. 13. : accessed 25 August 2015.

[ix] Census (1871) England. Bath, Somerset. ED. 8. SN. 259. PN. 2479. p. 42. : accessed 25 August 22015.

[x] Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette. (1879). County Magistrates Court. Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette. Thursday 16th January. p.7F. : accessed 25 August 2015.

[xi] Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette. (1879). County Magistrates Court. Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette. Thursday 16th January. p.7F. : accessed 25 August 2015.

[xii] Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette. (1883). Bath Police. Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette. Thursday 15th March. p.6E. : accessed 25 August 2015.

[xiii] Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette. (1886). Alleged Assault. Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette. Thursday 7th January. p.7F. : accessed 25 August 2015.

[xiv] Criminal Case Records. (1888).   Fanny. Court: Kent Assizes. Offence: Murder. Sentence: Death. Deposition of Marcus George Bateman. Reference: HO 144/215/A49089. Available from the National Archives. Kew, London. : accessed 04 February 2015.

[xv] Criminal Case Records. (1888).   Fanny. Court: Kent Assizes. Offence: Murder. Sentence: Death. Deposition of Nellie Hollman. Reference: HO 144/215/A49089. Available from the National Archives. Kew, London. : accessed 04 February 2015.

[xvi] Criminal Case Records. (1888).   Fanny. Court: Kent Assizes. Offence: Murder. Depositions of Laura Broadwater and Eliza Anslow. Sentence: Death. Reference: HO 144/215/A49089. Available from the National Archives. Kew, London. : accessed 04 February 2015.

[xvii] Criminal Case Records. (1888).   Fanny. Court: Kent Assizes. Offence: Murder. Sentence: Death. Deposition of Richard Callingham. Reference: HO 144/215/A49089. Available from the National Archives. Kew, London. : accessed 04 February 2015.

[xviii] Criminal Case Records. (1888).   Fanny. Court: Kent Assizes. Offence: Murder. Sentence: Death. Deposition of John Taylor. Reference: HO 144/215/A49089. Available from the National Archives. Kew, London. : accessed 04 February 2015.

[xix] Criminal Case Records. (1888).   Fanny. Court: Kent Assizes. Offence: Murder. Sentence: Death. Reference: HO 144/215/A49089. Available from the National Archives. Kew, London. : accessed 04 February 2015.

[xx] Criminal Case Records. (1888).   Fanny. Court: Kent Assizes. Offence: Murder. Sentence: Death. Reference: HO 144/215/A49089. Available from the National Archives. Kew, London. : accessed 04 February 2015.

[xxi] Census (1901) England. Bath, Somerset. ED. 01. SN. 68. PN. 2340. p. 6 : : accessed 25 August 2015.

[xxii] Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette. (1900). Bath Police. Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette. Thursday 12th April. p.6F. : accessed 25 August 2015. Also: Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette. (1901). Assault and Wilful Damage. Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette; Thursday 14th February. P.2D-E. : accessed 25 August 2015.

[xxiii] Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette. (1903). Drunk. Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette. Thursday 8th October. p.3B. : accessed 25 August 2015.

[xxiv] Deaths (CR) England. Bath, Somerset. 4th Quarter 1909. Fanny. Vol. 5c. p.341. : accessed 25 August 2015.

[xxv] Easdown M & Sage L. (2006) “The Scourge of Demon Drink” in: Foul Deeds &      SuspiciousDeaths Around Folkestone & Dover. Barnsley. Pen & Sword Books Ltd. pp. 75 – 79.

[xxvi] Beeley, Philip. (2013) Downward Slide: The sad tale of Fanny. / : accessed 25 August 2015.


Suggested Images for article:



Sandgate Beach – Image no longer subject to copyright.







Mrs Bramwell Booth c. 1912. Image no longer subject to copyright




Using historical documents to capture student engagement

Using historical documents to capture student engagement

As well as my genealogical work, I also work part time teaching mathematics to adults in the community for a local further education college. This week I was planning a session on revision for mean, mode, median, range, tally charts and graphs. Not the most inspiring of subjects for learners who find mathematics difficult. Rather than collating information on the shoe sizes of the group – a scenario used in many teaching aids, I wanted something different. So how could I bring my love of historical documents into the classroom and make learning real and interesting for my students?


Clearly I needed historical documents that contained information that could be extracted to meet the learning aims and I also needed something that was dramatic to hold their interest. In the past, when teaching public health to 16 – 18-year-olds, I have used 1700/1800 death and burial records. One example was of a girl who died at the age of 16 from a cut finger. Asking the students why this would have happened they can be a little flummoxed at first until they realised tetanus and/or antibiotic treatment had not been discovered at that time. Seeing the old writing within the historical documents and the number of infant deaths that occurred had the students riveted to their seats. This is a teaching method that really works.


With this in mind I decided to look for records relating to deaths on the Titanic. However, the deaths were all listed the same as presumed drowned. I then looked at the first page within the Titanic shipping death collection and found what I needed. Eleven people were listed from different ships during 1912. Ages ranged from 4 months to 67. Causes of death were given including several bronchopneumonia and heart disease.[i] We were able to explore mean, mode and median death age, range of data sample and then used a tally chart to collate information on causes on death which was then transferred to bar charts. As well as the mathematical practice the students also acquired some knowledge on geography, social and medical history. Not bad jus for the use of a few historical documents. They loved it, were focused throughout and asked for more learning to take place in this manner.


But what of copyright? The document I used was from Under their terms and conditions of use you can republish public domain images. However this must only be a small portion of the documents and Ancestry must be credited as the source of the image.  Written permission from Ancestry is needed should you wish to republish a greater proportion of images from a collection.[ii] Should you fail to follow these guidelines then you could lose your membership to the site and even be prosecuted.


Copyright legislation is specific to each country. In the United Kingdom some leeway exists for educational use. Schools and colleges will hold educational copying licenses. In 2014 educational copyright legislation was amended to include a ‘fair dealing exception’. Work could be copied if the following criteria are met:

“1. The work must be used solely to illustrate a point;

  1. the use of the work must not be for commercial purposes;
  2. the use must be fair dealing; and
  3. it must be accompanied by a sufficient acknowledgement.”[iii]


This means tutors/teachers now have more access to original documentation and digital media. So could scanned copies of original documents be used more in education, and in particular for capturing the interest of students in a subject such as mathematics that they struggle to see relevance for? From my experience this week I would argue that yes we should be using them and not just for mathematics. Health and social care teaching as well as sociology, history and geography would all benefit from these resources and I am sure other teachers/lecturers would find uses for them in other subject areas as well. Most importantly it gives students a window to the past, their history.


“Their history” is perhaps the key point here that is missed by schools and FE colleges. Universities, such as Strathclyde in Glasgow, are offering introductory courses, Diplomas and Masters; Adult Education is offering family history courses but with little if any recognized accreditation, but FE colleges and schools? Nothing. It has already been seen above that adult learners and 16 – 18-year-old students quickly become engaged with original documentation, and how this could benefit their wider studies. How much more would they engage if the documentation related to their family? The resources are out there, there are qualified genealogists who could teach the programmes, and courses could bring in much needed revenue. If examination boards were to bring in genealogical qualifications at Level 3 is there a career progression pathway for students to follow? Of course there is. The Association of Professional Genealogists (AGP) name a few possibilities: author; columnist; DNA specialist; editor; heir searcher; lecture and seminar presentations; house historians; librarians; transcribers; a travel/tour genealogist and specialties such as adoption, African-American and American Indian research.[iv] Others that could be included are archivist and family tracing for medical connections in inherited diseases.

So what would be the next steps to take? Genealogy needs to be recognised by the masses as a valid career. For this to happen the profession needs to fight for high professional standards and recognised robust qualifications. Steps are already being taken for putting this in place. The APG has a process for certification and, in the United Kingdom, Strathclyde University is leading the way in setting up a worldwide register of genealogists, in collaboration with the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies and the University of Dundee.[v] Popular television programmes have taken family history to the masses and the time if now right for the general public to recognise the value that a properly qualified genealogist can bring to personal research, historical research, medical research and education.

[i] Deaths (1912) Collection: UK, RMS Titanic, Deaths at Sea, 1912. p.1. : accessed 09/01/2017.

[ii] (2015) Terms and Conditions. : accessed 15/01/2017.

[iii] Intellectual Property Office (2014) Exceptions to copyright: Education and Teaching. p.3. Newport.  Intellectual Property Office.

[iv] Association of Professional Genealogists. (2017) Find a Specialist. : accessed 17 January 2017.

[v] Qualified Genealogists Org. (2017) Accepted Qualifications, Recognised Institutions. : accessed 17 January 2016.

Adoption – Starting the search for your English birth ancestors

Adoption – Starting the search for your English birth ancestors

I was born in 1962 in London and placed with my adoption family six weeks later. I was told I was adopted when I was 5 and my adoptive mother was pregnant with her second natural child. As I got older I began to think more about my birth parents, picturing them in their mansion with a swimming pool, just waiting for me to knock on their door.

With adulthood came the strong desire to find out about my heritage. Who was I really? Where did I come from? What were my roots? I had wanted to be a nurse and live in Ireland, why was this? Searching for my adoption family forms this tale of how I became addicted to genealogy.

In my late teens, with my father’s support, I contacted the Catholic adoption agency that had handled my adoption and was given brief details about my birth parents. I was told their names and that my mother was unmarried, resulting in my birth mother being admitted to a Catholic mother and baby home. I was informed she had no family support in England as she was born in Ireland and her parents had died when she was young after which she had been brought up by family friends. She had then gone on to be a nurse! A coincidence? Who knows. I was also given my original birth name, the first name of which is too horrendous to tell, but the surname was O’Brien, not exactly rare. Armed with these details I obtained my birth certificate and also that of my mother’s. Two surprises, firstly, although the adoption agency had given me the name of my birth father, he was not listed on the birth certificate (I should have realised this would be the case, but I was younger then and naive) and secondly my birth mother was also illegitimate, and that from the information the certificate provided she was probably born in a mental institution outside of Dublin where many single mothers were admitted in the 1930s with little chance of being released.

Accepting the facts that my birth grandmother’s name was just too common to trace at the time, I focused on my birth father’s family. I accepted he was my father as I saw no reason for my birth mother to lie; she had informed the adoption agency of being in a relationship with him for about six months. I started with his birth to discover the maiden name of his mother and proceeded to find the marriage of his parents. I went on to uncover a family history that contained no mansions or palaces. Instead I discovered a long line of coal miners, on the backs of whom Industrial Britain was built. Rather than a palace my great grandfather lived at Number 6, Bog Row, in Houghton-le-hole in County Durham and I am proud of him, his/my coal mining ancestors and my northern roots.

My adoption story currently finishes with the discovery of two pictures of my birth mother. Each year I do a Google search with her name and town. For many years there were no results but in 2013 the search returned a news story on a council run winter warmer event. With shaking fingers I clicked on the link and then scrolled down the article. Not only did it mention her name but it also included a picture. I sat staring at the screen with tears running down my face. This was my mother! A year later following what appears to be an annual event, a newspaper article held another picture. I look nothing like her and can now look at the picture dispassionately. I just wish I had a picture of my birth father.

So what lessons have I learned that I can share. Firstly, don’t believe everything you are told, secondly double check the facts. Ensure you source original documentation where possible. Know that most adoption agencies will only give records pertaining to you, not to your mother. If the adoption agency that handled your adoption has closed, turn to the local county council to see if they hold these records. If they don’t they should know who does. A second port of call is the courts. Try the courts that were close to the adoption agency or close to where your adoptive parents lived at the time of your adoption. Thirdly in the UK there is an Adoption Contact Register held by the General Registry Office; a quick Google search will give you information on how to register and the small costs involved. This register was designed to put adoption/birth families back in touch with each other, should they wish to make contact. Fourthly, take your time. Each step can come as a shock and needs to be accepted. It can also be upsetting at times as you start to piece the story together. For instance, discovering a maternal grandmother who might have been alive at the time in a mental institution, posed me the question of was I morally responsible for her?

Lastly, if they are still alive, do not approach your birth parents independently.  Go through an approved adoption intermediary. My county council did this for me and contacted my birth mother on my behalf. She did not want to know anything about me or to have contact. Was I disappointed? No. I received the call in the middle of a field outside a zoo park. I looked down at my year-old grandson and realised I was starting a new dynasty of my own, one that will go on and be part of building the Britain of the future. In the meantime, I have gained a knowledge of genealogy and a love for research that will last the rest of my lifetime. I have found ancestors to be proud of and know the importance of treasuring my own family. So has adoption been good for me? Of course it has. Next step, DNA testing, but that will be another tale.