Nick’s Blog Archives

Here, There and Everywhere!

Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary, Queen of Scots (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I seem to be on the move constantly these days. I’ve just returned from a wonderful trip to Traquair Castle near Peebles, in the Scottish Borders, for the launch of a fantastic book by Margaret Fox and Catherine Maxwell Stuart. It uses the family archives to shed light on key members of the Stuart family, and their relationship to their ancestral home, Traquair, which is one of the oldest castles to remain in the same family’s occupancy – from the early 15th century to the present day. Margaret has selected some amazing documents to tell the story of key individuals through the ages, up to 1875 – and the emphasis is indeed firmly on story-telling. There’s always a temptation when writing a book on larger than life historical characters, bearing in mind the family’s connections to Mary Queen of Scots and subsequently the English court after the accession of James I, to turn it into an academic monograph; or, when putting together images from wonderful archives, portraits, architecture and landscape, to go down the route of a coffee-table book. This is not to demean either form of publishing, by the way. However, Margaret has managed to achieve something quite rare – the amalgamation of the best of both genres in an accessible book that lets the stories and images captivate the reader. It’s a great example of how to bring personal archives to life. Admittedly, we might not all own a castle, or have correspondence, papers and accounts dating back over 600 years; however, it does show us that the minutiae of history has its place, and can be interesting to a wider audience if presented in the right way.

On a related topic, last week I was speaking at the Community Archive and Heritage Group (CAHG)’s annual conference, where the awards for Community Archive of the Year were presented. The following evening, I accompanied some colleagues from CAGH, and the Archives and Records Association (ARA), to Marden History Group. Since 2008, they have secured funding for their own space in the village library; digitised and transcribed many local records, placing them on their website; undertaken a series of oral history events, recording the memories of local residents for posterity; written a series of books on aspects of local history; talked to school children about their community history; and even found time to begin some restoration projects. They are an inspirational group, and worthy winners of the inaugural award. I’m personally pleased to announce that Your Family History magazine will be sponsoring next year’s award, so to examine the categories in which presentations are made, and for more details about how send in your nominations for 2012, visit the CAHG website


Apologies and a Great New Zealand Conference

It’s been a long while since I last posted a blog on the site – my profuse apologies! I can only say that I’ve been incredibly busy completing the first run-through of my book on the history of Greater London, something you’ll have noticed I’m working on by my frequent tweets on the subject. This was finally delivered on 23 May, and the next stage – which is keeping me and the team occupied – is the revision and editing process. There will be a trade launch on 25 June at Foyle’s bookshop, where I will say a few words about the concept, and copies will hit the shops on 1 November in time for Christmas. To say that it’s a mighty relief to have completed the bulk of the writing is a massive understatement; it’s only now that I realise just how much of my time and attention was devoted to the work. It is an incredibly difficult story to tell, because there are some many conflicting social themes to cover, let alone geographical differences and a huge sweep of time from the Romans to the present day.

auckland research centre

Auckland Research Centre

Another reason I’ve been operating under a ‘cone of silence’ is because I took a short trip to New Zealand to speak at the New Zealand Society of Genealogists conference, held at the Wairakei Resort, Taupo. I’d never been to New Zealand before – I’ve travelled to Australia several times for conferences, work and filming – so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. After a very long flight, I finally landed in Auckland on the north island and then transferred to a 20 seat plane, flying to Rotorua where I was met by Diana and Peter Humm, who kindly drove me to Wairakei. The scenery was stunning – lakes, mountains, forest, steaming geothermal sites, with Lake Taupo in the background framed by active volcanoes. I should confess that I managed to fit in quite a lot of sightseeing in the four days I was there, including white water rafting, visits to Maori terraces and culture centre, geothermal sites at Orakei Korako and craters of the moon, and trips around the lake; thanks to Tania, Eric, Murray and Lauren for these memorable trips. The conference itself was great fun; I spoke on several occasions on a range of topics, including education, ancestral tourism and the future of family history. Rosemary and Eric Kopittke were visiting from Australia, and talked about German ancestry as well as changes to Find My Past; and Seonaid Lewis, a long-time twitter correspondent from the Auckland Research Centre, also gave a presentation on how own research trials and tribulations. Outgoing President of the Society, Fiona Brooker, shared her thoughts on the future direction of New Zealand genealogy – a theme picked up by her successor, Michelle Patient.

Altogether, it was a fantastic experience, and very interesting to hear about some of the challenges facing researches on the other side of the planet who share our ancestors in the UK. The need for accurate online resources was clearly apparent, but there was a concern about cost and the accessibility of onsite records in New Zealand as well. However, what struck me was the way many of the research services on the ground joined together and worked with the Society, possibly because it was the main body representing genealogy in New Zealand. Perhaps that singularity of vision, and ability to advocate more powerfully as a result, is something we need to look at once more in the UK.

Finally, thanks to all of you who submitted areas that you’d like to blog about on this site. I’m looking at a number of ways we can increase content, including monthly articles, regional sections and more use of photographs – but most important of all, please encourage your friends, fellow society members and research associates to look at and use the site.

A hundred years ago, the Titanic was in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, three days into its maiden voyage bound for New York

A hundred years ago, the Titanic was in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, three days into its maiden voyage bound for New York.

Lost Voices from the Titanic These are the actual words of Charlotte Collyer, one of the passengers on board the Titanic as it headed for its date with destiny. She recalled a conversation with a stewardess on the evening of 14 April, who had informed her that they were heading into dangerous waters; curiously, this had a reassuring effect as she assumed the crew would be all the more vigilant for icebergs.

‘As far as I can tell we had not slackened our speed in the least. It must have been a little after ten o’clock when my husband came in and woke me up. He sat and talked to me for how long I do not know, before he began to make ready to go to bed. And then the crash! The sensation to me was if the ship had been seized by a giant hand and shaken once, twice then stopped dead in its course. That is to say there was a long backward jerk, followed by a shorter one. I was not thrown out of my berth and my husband staggered on his feet slightly. We heard no strange sounds, no rending of plates and woodwork, but we noticed that the engines had stopped running. They tried to start the engines a few minutes later but after some coughing and rumbling there was silence once more.’

They eventually made for the decks where the seriousness of the situation was soon clear.

‘Suddenly there was a commotion near one of the gangways and we saw a stoker come climbing up from below. He stopped a few feet away from us. All the fingers of one hand had been cut off. Blood was running from the stumps and blood was spattered over his face and over his clothes. The red marks showed very clearly against the coal dust with which he was covered. I went over and spoke to him. I asked him if there was any danger. ‘Danger’, he screamed at the top of his voice, ‘I should say so! It’s hell down below, look at me. This boat will sink like a stone in ten minutes.’ He staggered away and lay down fainting with his head on a coil of rope. At this moment I got my first grip of fear – awful, sickening feat. That poor man with his bleeding hand and his speckled face brought up a picture of smashed engines and mangled human bodies. I hung on to my husband’s arm and although he was very brave, and not trembling, I saw that his face was as white as paper. We realised that the accident was much worse than we had supposed, but even then I and all the others about me of whom I have any knowledge did not believe that the Titanic would go down.’

Yet the call was made for women and children to enter the lifeboats; but men were not permitted to board.

‘The third boat was about half full when a sailor caught Marjorie in his arms and tore her away from me and threw her into the boat. She was not even given a chance to tell her father goodbye! ‘You too!’ a man yelled close to my ear. ‘You’re a woman, take a seat in that boat or it will be too late’. The deck seemed to be slipping under my feet. It was leaning at a sharp angle for the ship was then sinking fast, bows down. I clung desperately to my husband. I do not know what I said but I shall always be glad to think that I did not want to leave him. A man seized me by the arm then another threw both his arms about my waist and dragged my away by main strength. I heard my husband say ‘Go, Lotty, for God’s sake be brave and go! I’ll get a seat in another boat.’ The men who held me rushed me across the deck and hurled me bodily into the lifeboat. I landed on one shoulder and bruised it badly. Other women were crowding behind me, but I stumbled to my feet and saw over their heads my husband’s back as he walked steadily down the deck and disappeared among the men. His face was turned away so that I never saw it again but I know that he went unafraid to his death.’

Charlotte ’s tale will resume tomorrow.

To read the full collection of stories from the doomed vessel, you can order a signed copy of ‘Lost Voices from the Titanic’ for £10 including postage and package (£5 P&P overseas)

Price: £10.00

A hundred years ago, the Titanic set sail from Southampton

These are the actual words of Charlotte Collyer, one of the passengers on board the Titanic when it set sail from Southampton a century ago. They sum up the excitement associated with starting a new life in America, leaving England behind, accompanied by her husband Harvey and young daughter Marjorie along with all their worldly possessions.

Lost Voices from the Titanic‘The day before we were due to sail [our neighbours] made much of us, it seemed as if there must have been hundreds who called to bid us goodbye and in the afternoon members of the church arranged a surprise for my husband. They led him to a set under the old tree in the churchyard and then some of them went into the belfry and, in his honour, they rang all the chimes that they knew. It took more than an hour and he was very pleased. Somehow it made me a little sad. They rang the solemn old chimes as well as the gay ones and to me it was too much of a farewell ceremony… The next morning we went to Southampton and then my husband drew from the bank all his money, including the sum he had received from our store. The clerk asked him if he did not want a draft, but he shook his head and put the notes in a wallet which he kept to the end in the inside breast pocket of his coat. It came to several thousand dollars in American money. We had already sent forward the few personal treasures that we had kept from our old home so that when we went on board the Titanic our every earthly possession was with us. We were travelling second cabin and from our deck which was situated well forward, we saw the great send off that was given to the boat. I do not think that there had ever been so large a crowd in Southampton and I am not surprised that it should have come together… The Titanic was wonderful, far more splendid and huge than I had dreamed of. The other crafts in the harbour were like cockle shells beside her, and they, mind you, were the boats of the Americans and other lines that a few years ago were thought enormous. I remember a friend said to me ‘Aren’t you afraid to venture on the sea?’ but now it was I who was confident. ‘What on this boat!’ I answered. ‘Even the worst storm could not sink her’.

The collision that took place in Southampton harbour with the New York failed to dent her confidence:

‘Before we left the harbour I saw the accident to the New York, the liner that was dragged from her moorings and swept against us in the Channel. It did not frighten anyone, as it only seemed to prove how powerful the Titanic was.’


Harvey wrote to his parents, shortly after they had set sail:

‘My dear Mum and Dad,

It don’t seem possible we are out on the briny writing to you. Well dears so far we are having a delightful trip the weather is beautiful and the ship magnificent. We can’t describe the tables it’s like a floating town. I can tell you we do swank we shall miss it on the trains as we go third on them. You would not imagine you were on a ship. There is hardly any motion she is so large we have not felt sick yet, we expect to get to Queenstown today so thought I would drop this with the mails. We had a fine send off from Southampton and Mrs S and the boys with others saw us off. We will post again at New York then when we get to Payette.

Lots of love, don’t worry about us. Ever your loving children

Harvey, Lot and Madge’

Charlotte and Harvey’s tale will resume on 14 April.

To read the full collection of stories from the doomed vessel, you can order a signed copy of ‘Lost Voices from the Titanic’ for £10 including postage and package (Overseas £5 P&P)

Price: £10.00

The importance of family history events

It is Saturday morning. I’m writing this from the Dorset Family History fair, held at Parkstone School, Poole. The event does not officially open for another thirty minutes, but already there are people waiting to get in. The stallholders are getting set up – family history societies, publishers, technology providers – and the volunteers at the research centre are waiting with nervous excitement. The anticipation, as last minute preparations are carried out, is palpable.

Recommended Genealogy Websites

It is rare that I get a chance to sample the behind-the-scenes work that goes into setting up an event or show such as this. My role is to wander in, give a talk or two, and wander off afterwards. I perhaps don’t give enough thought to the months of preparation that goes into the planning and execution, as well as the logistics that make the day itself something to be dreaded. A good idea six months beforehand suddenly becomes all too real. One of the volunteers confides that they are looking forward to the end of the day, when they can get a good night’s sleep. I bet! They have been working tirelessly since I arrived, and no doubt will continue to help people throughout the day.

Everyone helping is a volunteer from the family history society. This is their chance to meet the public – to extol the virtues of genealogy to familiar faces and potential new recruits alike. Visitors are welcomed with a cheerful greeting, and there are smiles all round. Everyone is happy.

This is real genealogy. We can obviously access millions of records online, but holding an event where people can ask questions, seek help, meet experts, locate data not available on the internet, and of course see the benefits of signing up to the family history society is the lifeblood of our sector. It also is a chance for libraries and archives to engage with their constituents, to ask questions as well as provide advice and find out exactly what people want and expect from their local information services.

It will be impossible to take an event like this for granted again, and I urge you to think about what you can do to help when a similar venture is suggested by your society.

Another eye-opener came the previous evening, when I talked to about 200 members of the Banstead History Centre, Surrey. It was a fantastic gathering, showcasing many of the local projects that included schools and education at the heart of their activities, not necessarily promoting genealogy as such but highlighting the importance of local heritage and community collaboration. There is a clear model for other areas and groups to follow – the fusion of collaborative effort that benefits all interests and backgrounds. I look forward to hearing from other similar groups around the country – please let me know if there’s a general-purpose history group near you!



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