Pharos Tutor, Janet Few, is author and tutor on the course ‘Are you Sitting Comfortably: Writing and Telling your Family History’. Here she tells us about some of the research that was necessary to turn a family story into a fictionalised account for a forthcoming novel. Janet lives and works in Devon.
I always knew I would write a novel one day, just not this novel. When FindmyPast released some criminal records, I discovered the story of a local couple who were accused of the manslaughter of their adult daughter. Although this only took place in 1918, no hint of the incident had passed down to the present day and I was intrigued.
One hundred years ago, in the euphoria of the armistice, a young woman lay dying in a North Devon fishing village. Her parents were to stand trial for her manslaughter. Barefoot on the Cobbles uncovers the story of the troubled individuals involved and the traumas in their pasts that led to this tragedy. I have tried to recreate life at the dawning of the twentieth century and to root the narrative in its unique and beautiful geographical setting, I used very similar research techniques to those that I suggest in my Pharos course. The court records do not survive, but I was able to find very detailed newspaper accounts and they were the key to unlocking the past. They also helped me with dialogue, as I had access to verbatim witness statements. Of course, my previous history and genealogy books hadn’t required me to be able to write speech. The novel is set in a fishing community, where the weather played a huge part in people’s lives and I tried very hard to reflect actual weather events of the time. Fortunately, monthly weather reports for the period I was writing about are available. Where possible, I even tried to write chapters at the right time of year, so that I knew that I was capturing correctly the twists of the seasons and the wildflowers in the hedgerows.
Being an historian, I was obsessed with getting things right. It was very difficult at first to realise that this was not family history, it was fiction and I could fill in the gaps by making things up. Actually, very little was invented in the end. You would not believe the extended debate that ensued over very minor points, such as whether Clovelly donkeys carried luggage down the hill as well as up. Despite photographic evidence, it seems they did not. It turned out that the photograph that suggested to the contrary was posed for a film!
Avoiding anachronisms is not just about making sure your sixteenth century character is not wearing a wristwatch, or your hero does not put his shopping in a plastic carrier bag in the 1930s; I have read both of these clangers. Using appropriate language was another challenge. I had to be careful not to use phrases or vocabulary that was inconsistent with the early twentieth century. Reading novels and diaries that were written in the period, or earlier, was a great help here.
I call it a ‘why done it’, it is very much about people and why they may have behaved as they did. It is essentially a book about people and what makes them behave in a particular way. The characters and their backgrounds allowed me to explore such issues as anorexia, shell-shock, mental health, alcoholism, the menopause and infant mortality. You will find evidence of my interest in the history of medicine and of my love of the Devon landscape, hidden between the covers of this book.
I spent two years immersed in a landscape that was familiar and an era that was not. The characters became as real to me as my own family and somehow I knew how they would react in certain situations. In the end, the facts and the fiction became intertwined and now I have to remind myself which are the parts of the novel that I invented.
Barefoot on the Cobbles is due out on 17 November, for more information see
Details of Janet’s course Are you Sitting Comfortably: Writing and Telling your Family History here
This post is by Pharos Tutor, Julie Goucher
As humans we all have many things in common and yet we are unique individuals. One thing we have in common is that we each have a surname, in fact there is a chance it is our oldest possession. We were probably born with it, but we might have acquired it though marriage or adoption. Regardless of how we acquired it, we share our surnames with others, some of whom we are related to and others we are not. For some genealogists, that concept is fascinating and so a project of proportion is born, a one-name study or research into a surname.
Over the course of the next five weeks, a group of genealogists will be exploring the wider angle of surname research. We will be understanding the concept of one-name studies and surname research, exploring surnames and their history and using distribution maps which often add an interesting dimension to our studies as well as our family history. Also, we will be exploring core records that we need to build our studies and the process of gathering information. We will then discover data analysis and making sense of it all and look at the practical aspects of operating a one-name study, covering organising it, software, sharing your study using Facebook Groups and using the unique help of the Guild of One-Name Studies Profile feature as well as having your own website. The Guild offers the opportunity to have a website on the Guild servers, at no cost to those with a registered study. The website is indexed by all the search engines such as Google and Bing and provides a platform for you to share your material with others, find lost cousins, and preserve the material at the same time.
Each week there is a lesson with a series of exercises to undertake, with the answers and comments shared in the student forum, lesson material to read and think about, a video or two to watch. At the end of each lesson is a list of references covered during the lesson and perhaps some hints for recommended reading. Also, each week there is a student chat, this enables conversation, debate, the exchange of information, hints, tips and guidance.
Since the 1st February on my own blog I have published each day about some of the fascinations of researching a surname, undertaking the Pharos Introduction to One-Name Studies course and getting the best from membership of the Guild of One-Name Studies.
By investing the time to understand the broader concepts of surname research and how that works with, and links to other disciplines, you are laying solid foundations for both your own one-name study and your own family history. At the early stages, it is more than just tree building or name collection, solid foundations involve thinking about what you want your study to achieve over the longer term, thus enabling yourself to build a research plan to meet your study goals and discover the fascinating story of your oldest possession.
This is a Guest Post by Wayne Shepheard
The lives and livelihoods of our ancestors were controlled or affected as much by natural conditions and events as by political and societal constraints. In many cases the latter were strongly influenced by the former. Natural phenomena directly affected the environment in which people lived and worked affecting both the physical health as well as the economic well-being of people.
Every generation has stories about living through the worst weather or natural disaster to befall mankind! And yet each generation only repeats similar stories told by previous generations. Today, through instant, world-wide communication technologies, we can see the results of major natural disasters and how they affect people locally, regionally and globally. Reports of the devastation caused by these events are readily available on television, in newspapers and, especially, on the internet, almost as they happen.
In past centuries, there is no doubt that similar disasters caused significant death and destruction, often over wide geographic areas and across broad socio-economic groups of people:
- Storms, floods, earthquakes and disease all had immediate impacts on people and communities.
- Volcanic activity, erosion of coastal margins, infilling of estuaries, drought and famine all affected living conditions and economies lasting from several months to several years.
- Gradual changes related to climate change occurred over hundreds of years and had much longer-term effects on the environment and human habitats.
In the study of the history of families and the communities in which they lived, it is instructive to consider how people were affected by, or reacted to conditions we have witnessed in more recent situations. Would your great-great-grandparents have been forced to give up their farm if they were flooded out? Would your carpenter ancestor have moved to a location where there was a great deal of work available to repair the damage caused by a major windstorm? Did any of your ancestors lose their lives when tragedy struck in the form of a natural disaster?
Major storms – one example of natural events – have inevitably resulted in significant mayhem. As a maritime nation, Britain has had its share of such events coming ashore from both the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea.
A much-written about storm, called The Great Storm, struck the south of England and parts of Europe bordering the English Channel on 26 November 1703 (7 December 1703 on the Gregorian calendar, already in use in continental Europe but not introduced to Britain until 1752). The Great Storm occurred during the height (or depth) of the Little Ice Age (1350-1850), a period of much cooler global temperatures and extremes of weather conditions.
The storm was part of a massive counter-clockwise, very deep, low pressure trough that moved across the region, from west to east, affecting areas as far north as Birmingham and Norwich. Some of the devastation dealt to the country over the space of just a few hours included the following:
- Wind gusts possibly topping 120 mph at the peak of the storm, levelling almost everything in its path
- Over 700 ships wrecked while docked or at anchor in harbours around southern England and while still at sea, with an estimated death toll of up to 10,000 sailors
- Thirteen Royal Navy warships sunk, with the loss of over 1,500 lives; many others severely damaged
- Over 120 lives lost, and hundreds more injured on land across England and Wales
- Significant damage in towns and cities – in London over 2,000 chimney stacks blown down, demolishing parts of the houses to which they had been attached
- Tens of thousands of head of cattle and sheep lost on farms along the storm’s path
- Major parts of forests levelled
- Areas around major estuaries impacted by floods from storm surges, in many cases more dangerous than the accompanying winds
- Severe disruption to local economies just emerging from decades of recession, the effects of which felt for years afterward
- Mercantile shipping, involving fleets serving major cities like London and the export markets, disrupted for many years until replacement ships could be put to sea
- Immediate inflation of prices in foodstuffs and other goods – building materials in particular
- On the plus side, work multiplied for tradesmen such as carpenters, masons and plumbers, the latter being expert in the installation of lead sheet roofing
Losses during the storm have been estimated at about £6 million, representing about 5% of the total value of the building stock in England and Wales at the time – a very significant proportion! The potential loss for such a storm if it were to strike today might be well in excess of £10 billion.
Could it happen again? There have been other, major storms which battered Britain, causing significant property loss and numerous deaths – in October 1987 as an example. Modern improvements to sea defenses around harbours and estuaries, beach stabilization methods, inland flood control measures, early storm warning systems and rapid response of disaster teams all have aided in preventing the same levels of devastation as occurred during The Great Storm of 1703, however.
Was your family impacted by The Great Storm of 1703 or from other types of events? I am compiling examples of natural disasters and their impact on people and communities in past centuries. If any readers have such stories of events that affected their own ancestors, I would very much like to hear about them.
Brayne, Martin. (2002). The Greatest Storm. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing.
Defoe, Daniel. (1704). The Storm or, a Collection of the most Remarkable Casualties and Disasters which happen’d in the Late Dreadful Tempest, both by Sea and Land. Downloaded through University of Adelaide website 30 March 2014 under Creative Commons License from http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/defoe/daniel/storm/complete.html
Lamb, Hubert & Knud Frydendaho. (1991). Historic Storms of the North Sea, British Isles and Northwest Europe. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
About the Author
Wayne is a past student of Pharos, having attained a certificate (with distinction) in the Family History Skills & Strategies (intermediate) programme. He is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is a past Editor of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. Wayne has his own blogsite, Discover Genealogy, in which he relates his experiences as a family historian. He also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.