Picking up the Silk trail

November 23, 2012

This month, I’ve had a breakthrough with my paternal Silk line thanks to a visit to a family history fair!

I’d done a bit of research into my Silk line two years ago and had managed to trace the family back to the 1840s.

Back then, I discovered that my great-great-great-great-grandfather’s name was Robert Silk and that he’d died of consumption in 1840 at the age of 46. I also knew that he left behind a widow called Charlotte. Here she is with her children in the 1851 census:

Charlotte Silk in the 1851 census

Charlotte Silk in the 1851 census – please click to enlarge

While attending the West Surrey Family History Fair a few weeks ago, I spoke to the Huntingdonshire Family History Society who pointed me in the direction of what could be Robert and Charlotte Silk’s marriage record.

I got in touch with Huntingdonshire Archives and Local Studies and they sent me a copy of the marriage register. I can’t put the image on my blog because of copyright reasons, but the archives have kindly let me reproduce my own transcription of the record. Here it is:

Offord D'Arcy marriage register transcript

Offord D’Arcy marriage register transcript – please click to enlarge

I feel pretty confident that this does indeed record the marriage of my great-great-great-great-grandparents. The names are right, the date seems logical as Charlotte and Robert would have been in their 20s and Charlotte’s birth place was listed as being Offord D’Arcy in the 1851 census.

I think I need to plan a trip to Huntingdonshire to see what else I can find in the archives’ parish registers!


Ernest Johnson’s cap and jersey from the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games

September 6, 2012

I recently learnt that my great-great-uncle Ernest Johnson won bronze medals at the 1932 and 1936 Olympic Games as part of Team GB’s team pursuit cycling team. This weekend I was lucky enough to see his cap and jersey from the 1936 Berlin Olympics as they’re currently on display at Brooklands Museum until the end of September.

The exhibit also provided me with some new information about Ernest, stating that he had raced at Brooklands in the 1934 World’s Cycling Championship Trial as a member of the Belle Vue Cycling Club. I’ll be looking into these two new clues about Ernest’s life, but in the meantime here are some photos of his Olympic cap and jersey:

Ernest Johnson 1936 Berlin Olympic Games

With Ernest Johnson’s cap and jersey from the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games

1936 Berlin Olympics cap

A close up of the cap, showing the Olympic logo

Jersey of Ernest Johnson, Team Pursuit cyclist at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games

You can just about see that ‘E. A. Johnson’ is written in the collar of the jersey

My Olympic connection

July 10, 2012

With the London 2012 Olympics just around the corner, it seemed a fitting time to learn about the Olympic connection in my family tree.

When I first started tracing my family history a couple of years ago, my nan mentioned that my great-great-aunt Lilie Jones (the sister of my great-grandfather) married an Olympic athlete named Ernest Johnson. My nan was a bridesmaid at the wedding and has a copy of this photo of the couple:

Lilie Jones and Ernest Johnson’s wedding

A quick search of the marriage records at findmypast.co.uk told me that Lilie and Ernest married in Lambeth, London in the June quarter of 1937. I used this information to order a copy of their marriage certificate from the General Register Office.

Lilie Jones and Ernest Johnson’s marriage certificate

The marriage certificate tells me that my great-great-aunt was employed as a floor walker and that Ernest was a plumber – not giving much of a clue as to his athletic prowess! Luckily, the internet was a bit more forthcoming and I spotted this entry in an Olympic database:

Ernest Johnson’s profile at DatabaseOlympics.com

My nan was able to confirm that Ernest competed at the Los Angeles and Berlin Olympic Games in 1932 and 1936 as part of Great Britain’s team pursuit cycling team. Amazingly, he won a bronze medal at both! My nan also produced this incredible photo of Ernest and the rest of the team – she believes it was taken at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. Ernest Johnson is on the far right.

Team pursuit cycling team at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games

Although it’s nothing compared to Ernest’s incredible achievement, I’m very lucky to have my own Olympic connection this year. I’m currently rehearsing hard as I’ll be taking part in the London 2012 Olympic opening and closing ceremonies in just a few weeks’ time. It’s going to be an amazing experience and will now feel even more special because I know that my great-great-uncle would have been one of the athletes parading around the stadium 80 years ago.

Revelations in The British Newspaper Archive

March 19, 2012

I’ve just had another breakthrough in my quest to connect the two Howard lines in my family tree!

The last time I posted, I had just received my great-great-great-grandfather Richard Howard’s marriage certificate. While the name of the father listed on the certificate initially looked like Janus, I thought it was more likely to be James. I’d also spotted Richard living in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire at the time of the 1861 census – a bit unexpected as I’d always found him in his native Hertfordshire up until then.

The British Newspaper Archive launched a few months ago and I’ve been lucky enough to stumble upon a newspaper article about my great-great-great-grandfather. The article in The Herts Guardian on Tuesday 9 July 1867 reveals that Richard had been charged with stealing a watch and chain from James Harpin, owner of the Crown Inn on 18 May of the same year. Richard was found Not Guilty but the article states that this “caused much surprise in court”!

What’s really useful about the article is that it confirms that Richard’s father’s name was James and explains why he was living in Biggleswade in 1861. James Howard was called as a witness to Richard’s character, stating that “the prisoner is my son: he has been at Biggleswade for ten years, and works for all the gentry: have heard nothing against him before”.

Here’s the full article:

Article from The British Newspaper Archive – part 1

Article from The British Newspaper Archive – part 2

Article from The British Newspaper Archive – part 3

You can see from my updated family tree below that I’ve now discovered that both of my great-great-grandparents, Ernest Howard and Mercy Howard, had a grandfather by the name of James Howard. Are the two James Howards the same man?

The two Howard branches of my family tree

A first wife, an unknown father and yet more questions!

December 30, 2011

Well, the marriage certificate I ordered at the end of my last post arrived and has created even more questions! Take a look…

Richard Howard and Sophia Stevens’ marriage certificate – please click to enlarge

Firstly, Sophia Stevens has no father listed. This is the first time I’ve come across an ancestor with an unknown father – I imagine it may be difficult to track her ancestral line further back, but I’m keen to have a go! Interestingly, it seems Sophia was literate as she has signed her name at the bottom of the certificate, while Richard has made a mark.

Initially, I thought Richard’s father was recorded as ‘Janus Howard’ on the far right of the certificate. However, I’ve been unable to find any Janus Howards in any census so I suspect that part of the writing may be missing, making the name look different. Take a look at the image I’ve doctored below – if a line is added between what I originally thought was an ‘n’ and a ‘u’, the name looks like it should be James Howard.

Richard Howard’s father’s name

Finally, the marriage certificate revealed that Richard was a widower when he married Sophia. This is very useful information and has helped me find Richard Howard in the 1861 census.

In 1871, Richard was living in Buntingford, Hertfordshire with his ‘wife’ Sophia (I now know they weren’t actually married at this point) and children, Jesse and Mercy. Before now, the 1861 census had stumped me as the only likely record I could find was this one:

Richard Howard in the 1861 census – please click to enlarge

Here, Richard is listed with a different wife (Mary Howard) and two children with a different surname (Salt) living in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire. Now that I know Richard was a widower when he married Sophia in 1875, I could presume that Mary was his first wife and that perhaps her surname had been Salt.

I searched the marriage records for Richard Howard marrying someone with the surname Salt and found this marriage record:

Richard Howard and Mercy Salt’s marriage record

It seems Richard’s first wife’s name was not Mary, but Mercy Salt. He married Mercy in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire in 1859. Sure enough, I found a listing in the death records for Mercy Howard in 1864:

Mercy Howard’s death record

I was quite touched when I discovered that Richard’s first wife was called Mercy. My great-great-grandmother (Richard’s daughter by his second wife) was also given this name, a lovely tribute to his first wife.

Beginning the Howard hunt

September 30, 2011

A little while ago I discovered that my maternal great-great-grandmother Mercy had the same maiden name as her married name: Howard. This made me wonder whether Mercy Howard may have been related to her husband (my great-great-grandfather) Ernest Howard. I’ve been doing a bit of digging and I’m becoming more and more convinced that they were.

Ernest’s Howard line

I’ve been researching Ernest and Mercy’s families using the 1841 – 1901 censuses and have managed to trace Ernest’s Howard line all the way back to the 1841 census. Here are a couple of highlights to show you what I’ve discovered:

Ernest Howard and family in the 1871 census - please click to enlarge

The 1871 census shows Ernest living with his parents, Elijah and Marion Howard (my great-great-great-grandparents). Elijah was a Labourer and Marion a Straw Plaiter. Both had been born in Hitchin, Hertfordshire.

Elijah Howard and family in the 1851 census - please click to enlarge

The 1851 census records Elijah Howard living with his parents, James and Ann Howard (my great-great-great-great-grandparents – phew!). James was a Chimney Sweep and Ann was a Plaiter. Both had been born in Hitchin, Hertfordshire.

Mercy’s Howard line

I haven’t done as well with Mercy’s line, unfortunately. I’ve only managed to trace the family back to the 1871 census and have got stuck here for the moment. I’ve discovered something that has made me more convinced that Mercy was related to her husband, though:

Mercy Howard and family in the 1871 census - please click to enlarge

The 1871 census records Mercy living with her parents Richard and Sophia Howard (my great-great-great-grandparents). Sophia was from Campton in Hertfordshire, but Richard had been born in Hitchin and was a Master Sweep.

This has shown me that both Mercy’s Howard family and Ernest’s Howard family came from Hitchin and that both were employed in the Chimney Sweeping trade.

Next steps

I’ve added all of my discoveries to my family tree, but will I ever be able to join up the two Howard lines? To help get Mercy’s side back a bit further, I’ve just ordered a copy of Richard and Sophia Howard’s marriage certificate – I’ll let you know what that tells me when it arrives!

The Howard branch of my family tree

Charles Silk: Post Office Sorter

March 14, 2011

As part of this project to show newcomers to family history how you can start tracing your family tree, I discovered that my paternal great-great-grandfather Charles Silk worked as a Sorter at the General Post Office (GPO).

A few weeks ago, I decided to visit The British Postal Museum and Archive to see what records they might hold about my ancestor. I thought it was best to be fully prepared about Charles’ life before I went, so I made a list of what I knew about his life and his work as a Sorter.


Charles Silk’s profile

1871/2 – Born in Islington.

1881 – Census. Occupation: Scholar, address: 60 Havelock Street, Islington.

1893 – Marriage certificate. Occupation: Sorter, address: 40 Arlington Street, Islington.

1895– Daughter’s birth certificate. Occupation: Sorter for the General Post Office, address:  40 Arlington Street, Islington.

1901 – Census. Occupation: Post Office Sorter, address: 40 Arlington Street, Islington.

1911 – Census. Occupation: Sorter for the General Post Office, address:  29 Wyatt Road, Highbury.

The information on The British Postal Museum Archive’s website told me that people tended to start working for the GPO at the age of 16 and retired at 60. Based on all of this, I was able to estimate that:

Charles joined the GPO between 1887 and 1893

Charles left the GPO or retired between 1911 and 1932.

I arrived with this information in hand, not really knowing what to expect as this was my first trip to an archive. The staff were lovely and got me signed up for a user card, explained the different sorts of information they held and advised me that I should start by looking for Charles’ pension or gratuity record as this would be the easiest to find and would provide me with the most detail about him.

I was shown how to use a microfiche reader – a completely new experience for me as I’ve done all my research online so far. Although the machines look a bit bizarre, they’re actually really simple to use. They reminded me a bit of a sewing machine as you have to thread a bit of the microfiche tape into the machine before you can start scanning through the pages to find the record you’re after.

I was advised to start searching the index to the pension and gratuities records when Charles would have been 60 years old (in 1931/1932). Sure enough, after a few minutes of scanning through names, I spotted Charles Silk’s and a note that he received a pension in 1931. Using the reference the index provided, the Archive’s staff were able to find me the treasury book containing my great-great-grandfather’s pension record. This is what the record looked like:

© Royal Mail Group Ltd, courtesy of The British Postal Museum & Archive.

© Royal Mail Group Ltd, courtesy of The British Postal Museum & Archive.


The record tells me that

– Charles was born on 27 April 1871 and was indeed 60 years old when he retired.

– He was a Sorter for the London Postal Service and had worked there for 41 years and a month.

– He started on 17 March 1890, when he would have been 18 years old.

– His wage was 68/6 a week at the time he retired. According to The National Archives, this equates to £114.46 a week today. While this seems low by today’s standards, the cost of living was much cheaper in 1931.

– During his service, Charles had also received Sunday pay of £18.7.5 (between £500 and £600 today), showing that he sometimes worked extra days.

– In the four years prior to his retirement, Charles was absent from work because of illness for 17 days. Over half of this happened in 1927 when he was off work for 9 days – I wonder why?

Chim chim cher-ee – the life of a chimney sweep

January 7, 2011

Last year, I discovered that my great-great-grandfather Ernest Howard was a chimney sweep, an occupation that I’d love to find out more about.

I recently spotted an article in issue 186 of genealogy magazine Family History Monthly that reveals the realities of what a sweep’s life was like. Many thanks to Family History Monthly for allowing me to reproduce it on my blog…

Dirty Work

On the 170th anniversary of an act of parliament which finally banned the use of children as chimney sweeps, Alex Hardy explores the hard, dirty and suffocating life of a sweep

In the famous musical Mary Poppins starring Julie Andrews, an Edwardian Dick Van Dyke danced and sang ‘Chim chim cher-ee’, to great applause, forever immortalising chimney sweeps as happy-go-lucky grafters. But the life of a Victorian chimney sweep was much darker and more brutal, relying on child labour and often causing horrific injury and the possibility of an agonising death.

It was the early Romans who first constructed the chimney and flue, to funnel-off smoke from log fires out of the roof. However, the practice was not widely adopted. During the next few centuries, a central wood fire burning on hearth stones in the middle of the room was more common. By the 16th century a fireplace and chimney became more widespread, and in the 17th century citizens were even assessed by a hearth tax. The size of a house determined the amount of tax paid, and was calculated by the number of chimneys present.

With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, coal became the main fuel for domestic heating. When overcrowded cities began to produce foggy smoke from chimney fires, Queen Victoria ordered all flues or chimneys to be swept on a regular basis. With royal approval the chimney sweep trade flourished.

Victorian working-class children were often required to supplement the family’s income. It was more important to bring home a wage, than to get an education. Child labour was vital to Britain’s economic success. In 1821 approximately 49 per cent of the workforce was under 20. Many children, some as young as four, worked long hours for menial wages. Child labour was cheap, and many were employed on farms in ‘agricultural gangs’, or in factories. Young children crawled beneath huge machinery to clean it, and many were crushed or killed in the process. Children also worked underground in coal mines, opening and closing ventilation doors, while older children pulled carts of coal to the surface.

In 1844 parliament passed a law which required children working in factories to attend ragged schools for six half-days a week, thus providing poor children and orphans with a free basic education. Then in 1870 the Forster’s Education Act required that all parts of Britain provide schools for those aged between five and 12. However, not all schools were free, and many could not afford the ‘school’s pence’, each week. It was only in 1891 that the possibility of free schooling for all was finally introduced.

The job of a chimney sweep was essential to avoid fires erupting in the home. When the interior of a chimney became choked or partially blocked with a build-up of soot, chimney fires could occur. Coal creates a sticky soot which often does not come loose easily, and chimney edges need scraping where soot builds up. Since the Georgian period chimney sweeps climbed up inside the chimney and brushed the flues clean with a hand-held brush. They also collected soot and sent it to farms as fertiliser. Chimney sweeps wore top hats and tails – generally cast offs from funeral directors – or a flat cloth cap, jacket and trousers with a belt.

Master sweeps employed young boys (and girls) as young as five or six, to train as apprentice chimney sweeps. Master sweeps were paid a fee to feed, clothe and teach a child the trade. Some parents sold their children to the trade, but they were often orphans taken from the parish workhouse. Child labour was cheap and readily available, and when chimney sweeps (or climbing boys) became too large or ill to climb chimneys, master sweeps returned to the workhouse for more apprentices to exploit. They earned considerable amounts of money from chimney sweeps, who were poorly fed, slept on a bag of soot in a damp cellar and often beaten. A child chimney sweep would get up in the middle of the night, climb and clean their first chimney at about four o’clock in the morning, then clean another six to eight chimneys a day. After each visit a servant would offer the chimney sweep and his apprentice a pint of ale.

Sweeping chimneys was a harsh and dangerous occupation. Chimneys were as narrow as nine feet square and sixty feet high. Small boys forced to climb barefoot inside large chimneys, often choking with soot, their sore hands and feet bleeding as they climbed higher. If boys cried out in fear of the cramped darkness, the master sweep would light a fire beneath them, making them climb quicker up the chimney. Many children suffered horrific injuries, suffocated, became trapped in narrow flues or fell to their deaths from a rotten stack.

In 1775 the first cancer resulting from exposure to a particular chemical was discovered by Sir Percivall Pott, a British surgeon. He found that coal tar in chimneys led to cancerous ‘sooty warts’, cancer of the testicles. The 1788 Act for the Better Regulation of Chimney Sweepers, stated that master sweeps could not make their apprentices work on Sundays, and that they had to wash off their soot before going to church. The act limited master sweeps to six apprentices, all of whom had to be of at least eight years of age. However, it was not enforced by the police, so had little effect.

The harsh conditions suffered by young chimney sweeps began to gain public sympathy. Prominent members of society protested that young lives were being wasted for cheap labour. Reformers argued that longer, more expensive brushes could do the job just effectively as a child.

Joseph Glass, a Bristol engineer, is generally recognised as the inventor of the type of chimney-cleaning equipment still in use today. His system relied on canes and brushes formed from whale bones being pushed up into the chimney from the fireplace below.

In 1800 a friendly society for the protection and education of chimney sweep boys was established. Finally in 1840, 170 years ago this summer, a law was passed making it illegal for anyone under 21 to sweep chimneys. The Chimney Sweep Regulation Act of 1867 tightened controls further, with Lord Shaftesbury a main proponent of the bill. By 1875 all chimney sweeps had to be licensed by law, and licenses were not issued to master sweeps who employed child chimney sweeps.

Customs and traditions

There are many traditions associated with sweeps. In Victorian times if coachmen and race-goers saw a chimney sweep, they would raise their hats or call out a greeting for luck.

Coal, being connected to the fire and hearth, is also a symbol of the home. During World War One soldiers carried small lumps of coal into battle, a lucky token for survival.

 By royal appointment

There is also a tradition of chimney sweeps kissing new brides for good luck, which has its origins 200 years ago. As people lined the streets of London to see King George III pass in his royal carriage, one of his horses began to gallop out of control. A chimney sweep dashed forward and single-handedly stopped the horse and carriage, saving the king. By Royal Decree, George proclaimed that all chimney sweeps were bearers of good luck and should be treated with respect. The folklore of a chimney sweep being lucky continues to this day.

Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh had a lucky chimney sweep on their wedding day in 1947, as reported in a newspaper at the time: ‘Not by mere chance a sooty chimney sweep sauntered in front of Kensington Palace, on the wedding morning of Prince Phillip and Princess Elizabeth, thereby, affording the excited bridegroom an opportunity to dash out from the royal apartment, to wring his grubby hand for chimney sweep’s luck.’  

Another reason they are deemed lucky could be that the high mortality seen in this occupation lead to a shortage of chimney sweeps. You were therefore lucky to meet one.

Read more about it

British Chimney Sweeps: Five Centuries of Chimney Sweeping by Benita Cullingford (Amsterdam Books, 2001), is a fascinating account of the chimney sweep trade in the British Isles over five centuries, with interesting stories, facts and historical knowledge. 

www.chimneysweep.co.uk, for more information about the UK National Association of Chimney Sweeps and the history of chimney sweeps.

My great-great-grandparents’ marriage

November 5, 2010

After my post last week, I immediately looked for the record of Ernest and Mercy Howard’s marriage in findmypast.co.uk’s BMD records and then ordered the certificate from the General Register Office. This has just arrived and I thought I’d put it straight up here as it would have been my great-great-grandparents’ wedding anniversary today!


Ernest and Mercy Howard's marriage certificate


The certificate tells me that 122 years ago today, Ernest Saunders Howard married Mercy Howard in the Parish Church of St Mary in Hitchin, Hertfordshire. At that point Ernest was a Labourer, but it seems pretty obvious how he later got into Chimney Sweeping as his new father-in-law, Richard Howard was recorded with that occupation. The certificate also reveals the name and occupation of Ernest’s father – Elijah Howard, a Hawker.

I wasn’t sure what a Hawker was so I looked this up in a book I bought at the Who Do You Think You Are? LIVE show I attended in February. It’s a pretty good little book, I’d definitely recommend buying it as a handy reference tool. It’s called Old Occupations and Descriptions and is written by Eve McLaughlin. In it, a Hawker is described as an ‘itinerant seller of small goods carried in pack (licensed)’ – a travelling salesman, it seems!

I’ve added all of this extra information to my family tree, including the names of my great-great-great-grandfathers, Richard Howard and Elijah Howard. I’m surprised at how easy it’s been to get my family tree back to this generation!

The Howard branch of my family tree


One of the new pieces of information that the certificate has revealed is the rather odd middle name of my great-great-grandfather – Ernest Saunders Howard. I wonder whether this was his mother’s maiden name? Something to look into!

Researching the Howard family

October 29, 2010

A couple of posts ago, I found my great-grandmother Ada Howard and her parents in the 1911 census. I thought I’d return to this particular line of my family history and concentrate on tracking it back a bit further.

Ada was seven in the 1911 census, suggesting that she was born in around 1903/1904. The census form also states that my great-grandmother was born in Buntingford, Hertfordshire. By searching the birth indexes at findmypast.co.uk, I found the following entry for an Ada Maria Howard born in Royston in 1903.

Ada Maria Howard's birth record


I gave Royston a quick google and it seems it’s only about eight miles away from Buntingford. It therefore looked likely that this was the record of my great-grandmother’s birth, so I used the reference details provided to order Ada’s birth certificate from the General Register Office.

Ada Maria Howard's birth certificate


The birth certificate tells me that Ada was born on 11th June 1903 in Layston, Buntingford. It informs me that her father, Ernest Howard, was a Chimney Sweeper Master and that her mother’s name was Mercy. Interestingly, Mercy’s maiden name was Howard – perhaps a sign that my great-great-grandparents were cousins?

I’ve updated the Howard side of my family tree with the details I’ve gleaned from both the 1911 census and Ada’s birth certificate. I think I’ll continue tracing this particular branch of my family tree for the time being – I’d love to find out a bit more about Ernest’s occupation and also whether there really was a bit of inter-family marriage in the Howard line.

The Howard branch of my family tree