1. A Few Forgotten Women

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    The following is a press release from our tutor, Janet Few, one of the members of the A Few Forgotten Women project, several of whom met through Janet’s Pharos Are You Sitting Comfortably? Writing and Telling Your Family History course.

    A Few Forgotten Women

    A Few Forgotten Women is a project devised by a group of friends, known collectively as A Few Good Women. The group first got together during lockdown to provide mutual encouragement for family history projects. Even without meaning to, family historians often focus on the men on their family tree. It is usually the men who carry on the surname, the men who join the armed forces and who are more likely to leave wills, to vote or to rent property, thereby leaving a trail in the documentary record. Merely by virtue of her gender, a female can become overlooked. We realised that, unless we took on the responsibility of preserving them, the stories of many of the women we encountered during our research would be lost.

    The aim of the project is to preserve the memory of some women who have, until now, been hiding in the shadows, forgotten by history. The women that you will meet on our website are those that we have discovered as part of our investigations into our own ancestry, as part of a one-name study, a one-place study, or when undertaking a wider project. Then there are the women that had no link to our own work but who cried out to us as we researched in the documents of the past. We hope that meeting our forgotten women will encourage others to tell the stories of their own.

    Some woman are further on the margins than others and this project focusses on those whose lives were touched by issues such as poverty, illegitimacy, criminality, disability, alcoholism, prostitution, abandonment or mental ill-health. Often, several of these conditions go hand in hand, impacting on the lives of the women whose stories we seek to tell. Other women were less marginalised but lack descendants who can preserve their memory; they too find a place amongst our biographies. The nature of our site means that many of the stories we tell do not make easy reading. Please be aware that some of the biographies will contain material that some readers might find distressing.

    We are sensitive to the ethical issues surrounding telling the stories of people of the past. There is a balance to be maintained between commemorating their lives and respecting personal privacy.  Many of our women faced trauma and adversity; on balance, we believe they deserve their place in history. We aim to provide rounded portraits of real people in an empathetic and non-judgmental way. Where the women have descendants, we have tried to contact them to get permission to tell their ancestor’s stories.

    Our website is in its infancy, new stories will be added regularly. Take a look at the website here: A Few Forgotten Women

    You can also follow the project on:
    Mastodon @Few4gottenwomen@genealysis.social
    Twitter @Few4GottenWomen

  2. Online Parish Clerks, A Great Volunteer Activity for Genealogists


    This is a Guest Post by Wayne Shepheard


    I volunteer as an Online Parish Clerk (OPC) for four ancient parishes in Devon – Cornwood, Harford, Plympton St. Mary and Plympton St. Maurice. So what does an OPC do and how do they help family historians? I have written a few articles that explain the OPC scheme. There was also a great piece in Family Tree magazine by Roy Stockdill (2012) about the subject. References to them are listed below.

    Several counties in England now have an OPC program – Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Essex, Somerset, Sussex, Warwick and Wiltshire. Basically, an OPC adopts a parish or parishes and compiles reference material in the form of transcripts, extracts, abstracts, indexes and copies of original records. Data is collected from as many sources as possible, emphasizing both local history and genealogy. Many OPCs maintain websites such as mine (http://www.cornwood-opc.com/) where data may be stored for browsing or source references may be listed. A major stipulation for being an OPC is to share their knowledge with others free of charge. They must also be accessible through email.

    Map of England showing counties in which an Online Parish Clerk program is present – dark grey-shaded areas show where individuals act as OPCs, light grey-shaded areas are represented only by a coordinator who manages all data received from others

    I get one or two requests per week from people looking for information about their families. Because I have copies of all of the BMD registers, censuses and lots of other information, I can access the data right at my desk, at any time, and quickly answer many of the initial questions from family researchers Most often they want confirmation about dates of baptism, marriage or burials or the names of parents. Some of the information is now online at Ancestry or FindMyPast however not everyone has a subscription or can get to a library to access these databases. With a simple search of a parish name, my websites come up and researchers then have at least an initial contact.

    Occasionally people want to know about family relationships, especially where there are several families with children of similar names (not uncommon as children were often named after their grandparents so cousins often had the same name). The spelling of surnames is often different in various types of documents. For example, I found the same individuals on BMD and census records with the surname of Kellow, Kellar, Callard and other minor variations. Family members moved around Southwest Devon quite a bit and in each place they lived, their surname seems to have been recorded differently.

    Another researcher wanted information on an ancestor named “George Chapple, alias Geo. Chapple Standard”, according to his Royal Navy service record (Shepheard, 2014). He was baptized in Plympton St. Mary parish as George Chapple Standard, son of a single woman named Margaret Standard. He married as George Standard and had three sons in the 1850s all baptized with the same surname, although the last one was registered as Chapple. But by 1861, as shown on the census, the family was using Chapple and did so from then on. We still do not know where the Chapple name comes from, possibly from his natural father, but George obviously thought that was his real name from the age of about 35.

    One of the side-benefits of being an OPC is that, through requests from others looking for their family members in my parishes, I have met many new “cousins” from all over the world. Since the Shepheards inter-married with a number of other families, I was directed to those additional names via specific queries. Through some of those cousins I found out information on other branches of the family that I may not have discovered for some time, if at all. Along with that knowledge, in some cases, came histories that I would not have known about and copies of documents and photos that I might never have seen.

    Anyone with an interest in family history can be an OPC. Volunteers are always welcome, especially if they have knowledge about a specific parish or county and like helping others find their ancestors. Have a look at which counties and/or parishes are open and contact the relevant administrator for more information.


    Shepheard, Wayne (2012). The Future is Still in the Past: An Introduction to Online Parish Clerks. Crossroads, quarterly journal of the Utah Genealogical Association. 7(2), pp. 6-13.

    Shepheard, Wayne (2013). Experiences of an Online Parish Clerk: Examples of information gleaned from parish registers. Relatively Speaking, quarterly journal of the Alberta Genealogical Society, 41(1), pp 14-19.

    Shepheard, Wayne. (2013). Experiences of an Online Parish Clerk: A case study involving the use of information from parish registers and other data sources. The Devon Family Historian, quarterly journal of the Devon Family History society, May (146), pp. 24-29.

    Shepheard, Wayne. (2014). George Chapple Case Study. The Devon Family Historian, quarterly journal of the Devon Family History society, February (149), pp. 29-31.

    Stockdill, Roy. (2012). Online Parish Clerks. Family Tree, 28(7), pp. 38-41.

    OPC information can be obtained at the following Websites:
    • Cornwall – http://www.cornwall-opc.org
    • Devon – http://genuki.cs.ncl.ac.uk/DEV/OPCproject.html
    • Dorset – http://www.opcdorset.org
    • Essex – http://essex-opc.org.uk
    • Kent – http://www.kent-opc.org/index.html
    • Somerset – http://wsom-opc.org.uk
    • Sussex – http://www.sussex-opc.org
    • Warwick – http://www.hunimex.com/warwick/opc/opc.html
    • Wiltshire – http://www.wiltshire-opc.org.uk/
    • Hampshire – http://www.knightroots.co.uk/parishes.htm
    • Lancashire – http://www.lan-opc.org.uk


  3. What has demography got to do with it?


    Demography is the study of the human population by statistical methods. Stated baldly like that, it might appear to be irrelevant to the genealogist. But, if there were no demographers then there would be precious little in the way of sources enabling the kind of genealogy research we are able to do in Britain and Ireland, and indeed throughout Europe. Demographers have been responsible for the census, for civil registration and even for the recording of people in parish registers. John Rickman who was the architect of the five census returns from 1801 – 1841, was one of the most important from a genealogy point of view, and his work deserves to be better known. Thomas Malthus who published in 1798 the Essay on the Principle of Population as it affects the future improvement of Society, is much more famous for his theoretical work, but it was Rickman who enabled the British government to find out whether the population was rising or falling, and who started the process of statistical analysis of the people.
    One of the best websites as an introduction to population statistics for Britain and Ireland is Histpop, where you can find useful essays on the census returns and learn more about the organization of the General Register Office.
    One of the most potentially useful aspects of the work of more current academic demographers is their published work on the accuracy (or not) of our vital records. How many times have you wondered how complete the parish registers are, or what exactly is the known under-representation in the civil registration of births? Existing work on these subjects should be in every genealogy help or text book, but authors usually prefer to describe records, rather than try and produce useful new works of synthesis by applying what is known by the demographers to help us with genealogy puzzles. Even if the genealogy world generally ignores demography and anything statistical, that doesn’t mean that work on the accuracy of the records we use isn’t available (see the works of D V Glass, E A Wrigley and R S Schofield among others).
    Free PDF back issues of Local Population Studies journal up to 2008 can be downloaded, many of these contain extremely useful articles to genealogists and local historians:
    Current academic work on population is headed up by The Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure. They are publishing results online using mapping tools, on such interesting topics as: mapping the economic geography of England in 1851; mapping population growth by hundred 1761 – 1841; mapping turnpike roads and waterways with their dates; and the demography of early modern London, among other items of great interest. All of these projects could help you visualize the world of your ancestors and work out how or why movement from place to place happened. Their work is freely available on the website and deserves to be accorded a special place in the heart of any serious genealogist. The visual appeal of the maps certainly takes the pain out of any dry statistical analysis.
    Why wouldn’t we want to study this work? Demography, bring it on!

  4. You are being studied


    Genealogists are more used to doing the studying, rather than themselves being studied as a community or group. So it might surprise you to know that there are a number of academic social anthropologists who are studying us genealogists. Dr Fenella Cannell of the London School of Economics, published a very interesting paper in 2011 following her research into hobby genealogists. English ancestors: the moral possibilities of popular genealogy. It is unfortunately behind a paywall, although if you have access to JSTOR you may be able to get it. This is the abstract:

    This article considers the meanings of ordinary genealogy for English practitioners in East Anglia, and in the popular BBC television series Who do you think you are? It argues against the view, most forcibly expressed by Segalen, that genealogy is a ‘narcissistic‘ pursuit which compensates for individual or collective deracination in modernity. Contra Schneider, it draws attention to family history as a form of care for the dead, and a moral terrain on which the English living and dead are mutually constituted as relatives. This permits a reconsideration of the analysis of ‘self’ in the anthropology of kinship, and its relation to the categories of religion and secularity. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 17, 462-480

    Dr Cannell’s arguments are couched in the academic language of social anthropology because she is writing for other anthropologists. Nevertheless, we can take some interesting points away for our own discussions. Some anthropologists think we are engaged in a narcissistic pursuit, which seeks to reassure us about our identity. This is best expressed by people who talk about the search for ‘my roots’. But Dr Cannell argues that family historians are actually undertaking a form of ‘care for the dead’. She says that we are re-making kinship relations with the departed by treating both the living and the dead as kin. Furthermore, our discoveries open up so much more by actually being able to re-envision the past and thus they enable our ancestors to become real people again. That is a fascinating insight, and I feel the truth of it in my own relationship to my ‘dead people’ whom I study and get to know. Family historians often discover that the present is a more secure and stable place than the past and are brought up against the social injustices of the past. Thus by the collecting and recording of information about our ancestors, we are engaging in a form of tribute to those ancestors, the ordinary folk whom perhaps were so little regarded in their own lifetimes.
    The comments that the previous post on this blog generated (Who are the serious genealogists?) prompted me to re-read Dr Cannell’s article and to think more about what genealogy or family history actually is and whether or not it is worthwhile. Naturally, the answers to these questions will depend on who is doing the asking. However, if just one of the things that genealogists are doing is changing how social anthropologists see the modern ‘self’, then that is all to the good, as well as surprising. But anthropologists would not be interested in us if family history had not become so popular world-wide. The fact of the matter is that family historians are relating to the past en-masse in a way that has never happened before and that is truly exceptional. By attempting to understand our ancestors’ lives, we are finding stories that would never otherwise have come to light. Through publishing family trees, creating our own websites and blogging we are also creating history in a way that would never have happened without us. I would argue that this is why the genealogy community, hobbyist or professional is so much more than just a bunch of enthusiasts putting names into trees.
    Helen Osborn