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I’m an ethnographer. I’m used to talking with people, interviewing them, hanging out, doing participant observation of contemporary society. I’m less used to talking with and to things. I’m written before about learning to chat with historic artefacts in the context of museums. Now, as I explore the genealogies of Victorian patent holders I realise this ‘asking things of things’ is becoming somewhat of a theme (and a massive learning curve).

1901 England Census For Helena Mary Wilson
1901 England Census For Helena Mary Wilson

My key sources of genealogical data are  and

These sources provide access to a range of public records: Birth, marriage and death certifications, Electoral rolls, Census documents, Immigration and Travel documents, Wills and Probate, School attendance lists and Church Histories.

I’ve also been using, Google and Wikipedia etc.

Although I’ve found information about one of my patent holders via basic internet searches, few women inventors from this period are well known in the public domain. They require more attentive searching. Yet, these basic searches provide good contextual materials such as when I want old maps of an area in which these women lived, photographs or illustrations of the period and other kinds of analysis.

I am aware that this process is SO much easier than it would have been in the past. I have done all of this online. Only a short time ago I would have been in libraries and archives staring at these materials in microfiche formats.

1911 England Census For Mary Elizabeth Williams (nee Pease)
1911 England Census For Mary Elizabeth Williams (nee Pease)

In doing this kind of research work, I’ve been struck by a whole slew of new insights and challenges born of these kinds of knowledge objects. The following will be of no surprise to experienced archivists and historians, but this is new and therefore pretty interesting to me:

Transcription issues: These documents are old. They are aged, textured and crinkled and wonderfully material.  Concurrently, they often hard to read. Census documents are handwritten, on the footstep of households, most probably in awful weather and possibly in a hurry. Taking this into consideration they are pretty remarkable objects. But, sheesh, that script sometimes requires some creative thinking…..

People don’t always tell the truth:  about who is staying over, how old they are, what they do for a living …. much like today, really.

People make mistakes: Names spelt differently, or nicknames are used rather than full names etc

People move: The English Census provides a massive amount of insightful data of a population on one day, every decade. It is also, as a result, very limited. If a person happened to be travelling or staying at someone else’s house that night, they are difficult to find for a twenty year period.

People don’t move much: Conversely, and helpfully, people did not move much at this time which helps somewhat in tracing them.

Patrilineal systems: These documents privilege male histories. Women are harder to trace – their names disappear and their vocations/ interests are not listed. I’ve been learning some of the tricks of the (genealogy) trade – Boys are routinely given their mother’s maidens names as middle names. Daughters get their mothers and their grandmothers names. These are some of the ways women were able to preserve their own lineage and provides a means to trace them.

Contextual thinking: Reading these documents requires cultural sensitivity coupled with creative thinking. A group of unrelated people of similar ages living in the one address might mean it is a boarding house. People who have no birth or death records might have been born or died abroad or succumbed to epidemics (such as the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919 which killed a third of the world’s population). Similarly, WWI records are less than complete.

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– Changing social conventions: The questions asked of English citizens in 1911 are insightful of social norms of the time. Can you image someone knocking on your door running through this list of questions? Childhood mortality rates were high in Victorian times and as a result a part of life for everyone. This was partly due to poor medical care and partly from exposure to hazardous workplace environments.

Early Victorian manufacturing depended on children who worked there. In 1830, there were over 560 cotton mills in Lancashire, the Midlands district that included Manchester. These mills employed more than 110,000 workers, of which 35,000 were children, some as young as five years of age. Children worked as long as fourteen hours in the mills, but many worked longer since, with no governmental regulation, mill owners could demand any terms of employment they wanted… Children worked in other industrial occupations, most notably the mines, where both boys and girls began work at five years of age. Here their small size enabled them to pull carts of coal or iron ore on rails through the narrow tunnels.
Sussman, H. (2009) Victorian Technology: Invention, Innovation and the Rise of the Machine, Oxford England:ABC:CLIO, pp.101

No data was requested about children for Non-Married women, living or dead. This was not of interest to the State.

The taxonomies of  ‘infirmity’  are equally as insightful.

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Despite, and possibly because of the many challenges these materials are fascinating receptacles of data. I’ve been learning how to read, link, make creative leaps and connections from Genevieve Bell, who is astonishingly gifted in this method. It’s like an exciting chase – pages and hours of nothing and then a connection is made, a person is brought back to life, given shape and texture beyond the letters of their name. We gain a glimpse into their world – where they lived, with whom, what they did (or their husbands did) for a living, how many children they had and who their neighbours were.

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