Sunday, February 4, 2018

How to knock down a brick wall

Photo by Nicole Köhler on Magdeleine

I've been researching family history for a very long time...a very long time.  Let me say that again....a very long time.  So you think I'd know better but....we all get into habits and routines.  We all think we know how to do research. 

So, let me tell you a story about what happened to me the other day.  The other night actually.  Wednesday night specifically.

Wednesday night had been looming large in my consciousness because it was when my final assignment was due for the Writing Family History unit I'm studying at University of Tasmania (yes - even though I live all the way up in Queensland - don't you love modern technology?) The assignment was due at midnight.

So anyway, I'd decided to write about my two great-great-aunts Clara Rebecca Conner and Harriet Conner because I am obsessed with them.  During the course I had written a couple of short stories about them.  

Photo by Library Company of Philadelphia on No known copyright restrictions

No that's not a photo of my aunts.  Aunt Fossie (someone else's aunt) is on the right apparently.  That photo is just to get you in the mood. Now, back to the story....

This course was a challenge for me because you were encouraged to write fiction and I have been so used to writing non-fiction and having all the facts that I found it quite confronting.  But it was a good course because when you don't have all the facts - what can you do?  You stretch your imagination and write well-informed fiction.

So here are the basic facts about my great-great-aunts.  Clara was eight years older than Harriet.  They were both born in Portsmouth, Hampshire or thereabouts in 1858 and 1866 respectively.  Their father worked in the Naval Dockyard.  They trained to be teachers.  Clara had a baby out of wedlock and shortly after moved to Yorkshire.  Harriet followed a couple of years later.  Clara got married to WH Smith in 1884 and they all moved to Australia and taught in Queensland in 1885.

My brickwall (and don't worry I still have plenty more when it comes to these girls) was that I could not for the life of me find them in the  1881 census.  Actually I couldn't find any of the Conners in the census anywhere - not Rebecca and Edward (the parents) and their youngest son Edwin or the two sisters.  I wanted to know why on earth Clara chose to go to Yorkshire after having the baby Daisy.  Did they have relatives there? 

So in the absence of the facts, I wrote the story in italics below and submitted it well before the due date on Sunday night. Then I re-wrote it and submitted it again on Monday night.  And then I re-wrote it and submitted it for a third time on Tuesday night.  

The first time I wrote it, the letters were from Harriet.  The second time I wrote it, the letters were from Clara.  Then I gave it to my husband to read and he wanted to know why Clara was so uppity.  So, I pulled her down a peg or two . Here it is.

Photo by CJS*64 on / CC BY-NC-ND

10 September 1880

Dear Father

I cannot begin to thank you enough for all you have done for me this past year.  Allowing Harriet to join me in Liversedge is a great demonstration of your faith in my redemption. I did not realise quite how much I missed you all until I saw you at the station.  I know I should not speak of her, but giving up little Daisy  was almost more than I could bear and I have felt so alone of late.  Aunt does her best to make me comfortable and I am very grateful to her for taking me in, given the circumstances.   

I will be sorry to leave some of the teachers at Norristhorpe  but must take up this offer of advancement and, in so doing, make amends to you and Mother for the shame I have caused you.  Having Harriet as my Assistant  will be an enormous help and provide me some comfort besides. She tells me that the current Head Teacher at Robert Town is very disaffected with his placement.  I think the children and Harriet will all be relieved when he departs as his manner is so sour. He says he will be seeking a position in Commerce where he will be rewarded more for his efforts.  “God speed”, say I.

Harriet is finding the pupils very different to those in Portsea. She complains that she cannot begin to understand what any of them are saying. She was even more disconcerted to find that many are “half-timers”; they work in the mills or must help at home while their parents work.   She feels the pressure  and I have told her that she must apply herself.  If she does not pass the examination at the inspection, her stipend will not be forthcoming.
How is little Edwin?  How is the Dockyard Extension progressing?  It must be nearly finished now surely.

Please know that you are in my prayers.

Your Loving Daughter 

Photo by The Library of Congress on / No known copyright restrictions - and yes I realise that this is an American postman but just go with me okay? Just imagine that is Edwin.

25th December 1880

Dearest Edwin

The happiest of birthdays to you.   You see that I have not forgotten you.  I hope you received our little parcel. It is very cold here.  Harriet and I walk together to school every day and our feet are quite numb by the time we arrive.  It is dark when we set out and dark when we return.  

Edwin, I know it must be lonely without Harriet at home now.  Father works so hard and mother has high standards.  You must be patient with them both.  They love you very much and with Edward at sea, you are all they have now.  Promise me you will study hard at school.  The Navy will not want you unless you have very good results.  Running away to sea may seem like a good idea at the age of eleven, but you will not want to be a stoker all your life.  You must learn to be an Engineer like your Papa.  

If you want to be the master of your fate and captain of your soul,  do your duty, as we are doing ours and forgive your older and wiser sister for lecturing you on your special day.

Your Loving Sister Clara

Picture of school after HM Inspector's Report 1986. Head Judith Jones centre, Addingham, West Yorkshire - can you believe I found this photo when I put HM Inspector into the search bar?

2nd April 1881

Dear Father and Mother

You will be pleased to know that HM Inspector gave Roberttown Board School a most favourable report.  Harriet passed her examination and so will be able to repay your advance within the month.  

We are saving our pennies for our return to you in summer.  Have you heard from Edward? How is little Edwin? I do miss him and his ever ready wit.   

Father you must not trouble yourself about young Mr Smith and his intentions.  He is obviously very devoted but I have made it clear that he can have no expectations of any return of affection on my part until he proves himself. To that end, he has enrolled at London University for a Bachelor of Arts and intends to apply for another position back home in Hertfordshire.  He says that, since my departure, the atmosphere at Norristhorpe has taken a turn for the worse and that the young boys there have no manners to speak of whatsoever.   

Harriet and I despair sometimes of ever keeping our charges from ignorance and vice.   Many of them can barely stay awake to hear their lessons. Opportunities for leisure are far and few between here.  I do miss our musical evenings with the Rowlands. Those days seems so long ago now. 

Your Loving Daughter Clara

A view of laundry, East Marton bu stephengg on Flickr

10th March 1883

Dear Father

You will be most amused to hear that Miss Philippa Wilkinson of Balmgate House successfully claimed damages from the Liversedge Board for injury to a dress caused by the dirty state of the town’s water to the tune of £2, according to today’s copy of the Leeds Times.   Such is village life.

Young Mr Smith continues to be gainfully employed at the Beechan Grove Boys School at Watford.  He has become like one possessed in his determination to win my affection by working all day and burning the midnight oil to obtain his matriculation.  You would find him most agreeable in conversation as he has a scientific mind and is currently studying Acoustics and Magnetism.  

Aunt is like an Admiral, commanding a flotilla of elderly acquaintances to provide cover and distraction should any young men in the district show the slightest interest in Harriet or myself.  I am grateful for her concern as our good reputation is essential to maintain respect in the district.  You know what small towns are like; positively famished for gossip.  I confess it is starting to grate on my nerves and I yearn for bigger horizons.

How are Mother and Edwin?  I hope the latter is applying himself to his studies and the former to your comfort.  Please give my warmest regards to the Rowlands. I have heard from the most reliable of sources that they are thinking of emigrating to Queensland, Australia  – can this be true? 

Your Loving Daughter Clara

A job well done or so I thought.  I rewarded myself with some Facebook time.  

Some marvelous soul had created a group for the students in the course and we were all chatting about our assignments and posting when we had finished etc.  Someone asked how we had tackled fictional accounts in the absence of facts and I explained my brick wall and how I had to guess why they went to Yorkshire.  Another student, Anthea, piped up that she was from Yorkshire and wanted to know how I knew they had been there and where they taught.  I explained that their teaching records held at the Qld State Archives noted which schools they had taught at in England.  Anthea hadn't heard of the villages in question but asked me to message her the names and dates of birth of my great-great-aunts and she would do a bit of hunting.  

Photo on - yes I know it looks like a gratuitous photo of a cat but that's what came up when I put "hunting" in the search bar.

My husband started to clang plates about in the kitchen so I raced out and whipped up a meal.  We watched the news.  I washed up.  I brushed my teeth.  I read some George Eliiot.  I thought I'll just check my phone before I turn off the light.  And there was Anthea's message...

"I've found them!"

The surname CONNER had been transformed into CORMER.  And they were living with not one but two Hannah SUGDENs - one aged 73 and one aged 34.

Anthea found them on Family Search.  

She said "I searched for a Harriet of the right age born in Hampshire and living in the West Riding". 

So there's a tip folks.  Forget the surname altogether and you may have better luck.

"Can I re-write my assignment in an hour do you think?" I asked Anthea.

"No!" was the firm reply.

I still have no idea who the Sugdens are to the Conner girls - apart from landlady and boarders.  The census says that the two Hannahs are sisters but I think that is an error.  A search for them in previous census tends to suggest that they are mother and daughter. 

Needless to say, I tried to stay in bed and go to sleep as it was 10pm and I have to be up at 4:45 in the mornings.  But I must have lasted about 2 minutes, threw back the covers and got up to see where they lived.  Boy oh boy.....Heckmondwike is very atmospheric indeed. Google 202 Brighton Street Heckmondwike and have a look at where they lived.  The cemetery next door is very Bronte-esque.

Photo by Urban Outlaw on / CC BY-NC-SA

So thank you very much indeed to Anthea Fraser Gupta - fellow student and super sleuth.  

Lessons learned? 

1.  If you're not having any joy, try searching without the surname and put in keywords like occupation (in this case "teacher") - Ancestry seems to be best for this sort of search I think.

2. Let people know you've hit a brick wall.  Fresh eyes, unbiased, unjaded eyes can often see things you can't

3. Facebook is a tool for good - sometimes :)

4. Keep learning - never stop.


Birth Certificate of Edwin Conner born 25 December, GRO Ref1869, J Quarter in PORTSEA ISLAND  Volume 02B  Page 377

Birth Certificate of Daisy Clara Conner born 6 January 1877 GRO Reference: 1877  M Quarter in FAREHAM  Volume 02B  Page 580

Marriage Certificate of Clara Rebecca Conner and William Henry Smith married 23 October 1884, West Yorkshire Archive Service; Wakefield, Yorkshire, England; Yorkshire Parish Records; Old Reference Number: D1/18; New Reference Number: WDP1/3/10

Marriage Certificate of Harriet Conner and John David Rowland married 23 December 1908, Registration Number 1909/1031 Queensland Registrar General

Record of Clara Rebecca Smith’s service, Dept. of Public Instruction, Item ID 822995, M/film no Z8565 Page no 522 Queensland State Archives Ref SRS5138/1/1 Vol. 1

Record of Harriet Conner’s service, Dept. of Public Instruction, Item ID 987874, M/film no Z7591 Page no 171 Queensland State Archives RefEDU/V17 Source Vol V 

Record of William Henry Smith’s service, Dept. of Public Instruction, Item ID 987862, M/film no Z7587 Page no 253 Qsa ref EDU/V5 Source Vol V

“Portsmouth Police Court”, Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle etc (Portsmouth, England), Saturday, May 19, 1877; Issue 4670. British Library Newspapers, Part I: 1800-1900.

Bartle, George F, ‘The impact of the British and Foreign School Society on elementary education in the main textile areas of the industrial North, History of Education, Vol. 22 No. 1, 1993, pp33-48

Coppock, David A. ‘Respectability as a prerequisite of moral character: the social and occupational mobility of pupil teachers in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries’ History of Education, Vol. 26, No. 2 1997, pp. 165-186

“Bradford”, The Leeds Times, Saturday, March 03, 1883; pg. 3; Issue 2603. British Library Newspapers, Part III: 1741-1950

“School teachers and all friends of education”, The Leeds Times, Saturday, July 14, 1883, p3.

Henley, William Ernest, Invictus, Book of Verses, 1888 accessed 29 January 2018

Horn, Pamela, The education and employment of working-class girls, 1870-1914’ History of Education, Vol. 17, No. 1 1988, pp71-82

Horn, Pamela, The Victorian and Edwardian Schoolchild, Gloucester, Alan Sutton Publishing, 1989

Middleton, J. ‘The overpressure epidemic of 1884 and the culture of nineteenth-century schooling, History of Education, Vol. 33, No. 4, 2004, pp 419-435

Ordnance Survey Yorkshire CCXXXII.SW (includes: Cleckheaton; Gomersal; Heckmondwike; Liversedge; Mirfield.) 1894

Qld State Archives Index to Assisted Immigration 1848-1912 John Rowland aged 1 and family 15 Dec 1884 Item ID18481 M/film 1 Z1961 M/film 2 M1700 Page 330 Ship Waroonga Source

Thody, Angela M., ‘School management in nineteenth-century elementary schools: a day in the life of a headteacher’ History of Education, Vol. 23, No. 4, 1994, pp.355-373

“Assault on a Farmer’s Daughter”, Yorkshire Evening Post, 1 Feb. 1892, p. 4 British Library Newspapers Accessed 27 Jan. 2018


Crissouli said...

How I loved this, the concept of telling the story through the letters, the familiarity of not being able to stay in bed when something simply has to be checked.. and the sharing of a few facts having such a great result.
An inspiring post in so many ways.

Dianne said...

Alex I love this post. And I like the concept of writing a fiction story about ancestors... it must put your mind in overdrive! I will have to give it a go. You did a wonderful job!

Alex Daw said...

Dear Chris and Dianne - you are both so lovely to read this. I am glad you enjoyed it. I do tend to get carried away and it's lovely to know people who understand the obsession.

ScotSue said...

This made fascinating reading, Alex, and I very much enjoyed reading your fictional account that brought the characters “alive”. I have my own long term brick wall with my grandmother’s early life before she married. Despite using a professional researcher and many message board/Facebook queries, I still cannot solve the mystery. There is a suggestion that she was illegitimate and for some reason changed her name, so the potential for a fictional story is there - except, even from schooldays, I felt I lacked the imagination to write fiction and always opted for factual writing. You have given me something to think about - thank you.

Karen S. said...

Such an interesting adventure of discovery, a wonderful job. Your photos are just perfect and even the laundry hanging out to dry is a favorite sight we seldom see these days.

Alex Daw said...

Dear Sue - I'm so pleased you were engaged by it. Sometimes I wonder if I'm boring the pants off everyone. It is so frustrating to have a brick wall. My grandmother was always a bit superstitious and I think I inherited a bit of that. I wonder if by writing the fictional letters I was calling out to them....a bit like that dreadful Ancestry ad....."Come and find me" - only the other way around...when I can't find you, you'll have to present yourself!

Alex Daw said...

Dear Karen - ooh thank you for noticing the photos. I have to say that was one of the most enjoyable bits of the post - finding the picture to fit. I'm sure that's half the reason I blog. In sunny Queensland we really have no excuse NOT to hang out the washing. It's dry in a flash.

crgalvin said...

Great post Alex and a wonderful result. Your posts always inspire me to ‘do some more.’

Alex Daw said...

Dear Carmel - thank you for your very kind words. The feeling is mutual :) Happy bloggers we are to be sure !

Crissouli said...

I have included your blog in INTERESTING BLOGS in FRIDAY FOSSICKING at

Thank you, Chris

I'm back and hanging on every word...

Alex Daw said...

Thank you dear Chris