This year I have decided to launch a new series of blogs called Jude’s Gen, which will differ slightly in content to my regular articles. I love sharing research stories and writing about specific record sources but I thought it would be refreshing to take a theme and thread through news, reviews, opinion and commentary on family history topics. Hopefully they will be enjoyable and help to inspire your own family history research.
In this first edition, I am looking at the 1921 census and specifically, my childhood home, White House Farm in Higham, Kent. Luckily, I have a visitors’ book and a photograph of the farmhouse that all date from the same era, so these records link together nicely. Handwriting, even in 1921, was not always clear, and accounts for many transcription errors. If you find reading old handwriting a challenge, you will find lots of tips and helpful resources in my article on the topic in the February issue of Who Do You Think You Are (WDYTYA) magazine. Apart from reading magazines and books, there are many great ways to educate yourself and improve your research skills. Becoming a member of a family history society and attending their talks can be very rewarding. I attended one recently, as the speaker, and found it a great experience (more details later!)
After much anticipation, (would be it hyperbole to say we’ve been waiting 100 years?), January saw the exciting release of the 1921 census for England and Wales. The returns can be searched online at FindMyPast, who won an exclusive contract to digitise and index the records on behalf of the National Archives (U.K). You can only imagine what a mammoth undertaking this must have been, as altogether, 38 million people were recorded in the country in 1921.
So far, there has been predictable criticism about the cost of viewing the images. It costs £3.50 to view an individual household (£3.10 for FindMyPast Pro annual subscribers). (A transcription can also be obtained for £2.50). Personally, I think all the carping is unnecessary, as £3.50, (or the price of a cup of coffee), is not unreasonable, given the amount of work that has gone into the project, though the number or records that can be viewed is necessarily limited for the time being. After all, FindMyPast, as a commercial company, needs to make a profit. It has also been good to see that they have used their resources and expertise to create a stable platform; certainly the website has not been plagued by the teething problems and crashes that have marked previous large-scale record releases.
One is really paying for the comfort and convenience of researching from home, though the census can also be consulted for free at the National Archives at Kew, the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth, and Manchester Central Library. However, I would have liked more major libraries to be included in the free access. This would have also allowed researchers to analyse and study the returns on a larger scale. For now, I have limited myself to searching the census for only my direct line ancestors: my grandparents, great grandparents and one great grandparent, due to the cost. Eventually, the 1921 census will be made available as part of a subscription on FindMyPast and hopefully, on other genealogy websites such as Ancestry and The Genealogist, though there is no news on when this will come to pass. It wouldn’t hurt to have a little more transparency here in my opinion.
The other issue concerning the 1921 census, which has been talked about extensively on forums, Facebooks groups and Twitter, is the fact that it is riddled with transcription errors. Errors like these are always unfortunate but realistically, it is impossible to eliminate them completely. One also has to remember that like the 1911 census, the 1921 schedules were usually filled in by the head of household. Just like many of us today, some of our ancestors had terrible handwriting! It is no wonder that the indexers have had trouble deciphering their names, places of birth etc. correctly. Due to privacy concerns, the transcribers were only able to see one member of a household at a time, so they had limited opportunities to compare letters with those found in other words. Fortunately, before you make your purchase, you are able to see a few of the names of others recorded in the same household. This helps to minimise the chance of purchasing a record that does not contain the person you are seeking. If you are having trouble finding an ancestor in the census, why not try searching by address, rather than by name?
One record I made a beeline for was the schedule recording my paternal grandparents, Herbert and Frances Batchelor. My grandfather was a farmer and he took on the tenancy of White House Farm in Higham, Kent during the First Word War.
My grandmother is standing just outside the porch of the front door with her four children, my uncles and aunts. Given their ages, I know the photograph was taken ca. 1924, as the youngest child, Linda, was born in September 1921. My Dad, who doesn’t appear in the photograph, was born in 1925.
I realised the other day that I could pinpoint the month and year my grandparents arrived at White House Farm with some accuracy, thanks to my grandparents’ visitor book, which is in my possession. It contains many ditties, dedications and poems, which were contributed by their many guests over the years. On the marbled flyleaf is the following inscription:
The book had obviously been a gift to my grandparents when they moved to White House Farm. I can identify “Florrie” as Florence Metson, a childhood friend of my grandmother’s.
Within the pages of the book are a few illustrations. My favourite is this beauty, a delicate watercolour of White House, with the inscription, “Thou Remainest”. It is fascinating to see that it was painted less than a year after the census was taken:
Of course, I have had to investigate Stuart Sears, the artist. He was born locally in 1902 so was just 20 years old when he visited and painted the likeness of the farmhouse. Interestingly, I found him in a passenger list going to Algeria to work as a missionary in 1926. In the book is another illustration of an Algerian village, drawn by him on a return trip.
White House was built during the Elizabethan period so it really has remained for hundreds of years, the home of many different families who have lived within its walls. In earlier censuses it was known as Brick House, probably because few houses were built in brick when it was constructed. White House Farm was to remain in my family’s hands for nearly a hundred years and for three generations of Batchelors. It became my childhood home when my parents moved in when I was a baby. The house and its history has always filled my imagination and sparked my lifelong interest in learning more about the past.
As a child, I often used to wonder about the past occupants of White House. I hope to be able to do a proper house history soon but for now, the 1921 census could reveal its secrets:
My aunt, Joyce, the eldest child of Herbert and Frances, remembered her childhood on the farm. Back then there was no electricity, and candles and lamps had to be prepared every evening. Cooking was done over an open range and a copper was used for washing. It was therefore no surprise to find that in addition to their three young children, my grandparents, there were two young girls, Nellie and Lilian, aged 17 and 15, who were recorded in the census as live-in servants. It was lovely to find out their identities, as my Dad, (born in 1925), told me that the family had servants when he was a young child. The house had a back staircase that would have led to the room the girls would have shared, (my eldest brother’s bedroom in my day). Somewhat ironically, my grandmother, Frances, had been a servant herself just ten years earlier, when the 1911 census was taken. Since she had recently been in the same position as them, I am sure she was a kindly employer. Nellie is recorded on a passenger list heading for Canada in 1924, seeking pastures new. Her father, William, worked in the cement industry, as did my grandmother’s father so maybe they knew each other. Lilian stayed relatively local and married in 1929. I discovered that she had only passed away in the last twenty years. It would have lovely to have been able to ask her more about her time working at White House Farm.
Also recorded with the family was a 43 year old missionary, George Hawes Watson, who filled in his own details, as the handwriting is different. For the question concerning his place of work, he wrote “India”! He also said that he had two children under 16 years of age but this information was crossed out by the enumerator. My family were from a Methodist background and my grandfather, along with his brother, had founded Chattenden Gospel Hall during the First World War to serve the nearby Army barracks. My grandparents were very hospitable and had probably invited the missionary to speak at the church service that Sunday, inviting him to stay with them afterwards. They often hosted teas in the garden for large parties from church. As a result, many people had great affection for the farm because so many happy memories were made there. Growing up I remember that we had three big plastic tubs full of china: one for plates, one for saucers and one for tea cups, enough for a huge party. There was also a gigantic urn to boil water and a metal tea pot, poured by my grandmother, Frances. Sadly my grandfather, Herbert, died suddenly in 1951 but my grandmother never wanted to leave her beloved home. She lived in this large, rambling farmhouse all alone for the next twenty years but still enjoyed entertaining.
Incidentally, I couldn’t find my grandparents initially in the 1921 census, as the surname Batchelor had been mis-transcribed as Batchelar. The transcribers can’t really be blamed, as my grandfather, Herbert, (using a rather bad pen it has to be said!), left only a squiggle at the end of the name. One hundred years later I am mentally ticking him off!
As I mentioned earlier, I was delighted to have my article on how to read old handwriting included in the February 2022 issue of Who Do You Think You Are Magazine (WDYTYA). Reading old handwriting really is a skill anybody can master, but it does take patience and practice. If you have read my article, I would love to have your feedback.
Here I am holding the February 2022 issue of Who Do You Think You Are Magazine (WDYTYA) that contains my article on “Reading Old Handwriting”.
It is an open secret that when you teach a subject, you also learn a lot too and I have had the privilege of giving lectures and talks on family history since I was a young genealogist with the Institute of Genealogical Studies in Canterbury, Kent. Back then, I would stand at a lectern in the Institute’s Lecture Hall, my notes at the ready with my acetate slides prepared for the projector. I was usually a bit nervous at the start but soon got into my stride. What I particularly enjoy about teaching is the personal interaction with students and fast forwarding to 2022, here I am teaching again but this time, preparing PowerPoint talks to broadcast online. A few weeks ago, I gave a talk, via Zoom, to the Tameside Family History Group of Cheshire Family History Society. It was entitled “Knocking Down Brick Walls – Practical Techniques to Help You Research Problem Ancestors”. Although it isn’t quite the same as having an audience in front of you, I really enjoyed meeting and interacting with members of the society, fellow family history enthusiasts. There is also something rather intimate and personal when you see everybody in their living rooms, perhaps in their favourite armchair, or in some instances, with a cuddly cat on their lap. My favourite bit of the evening was the chat afterwards, when people had the opportunity to share their research problems and reveal how they had overcome their particular brick walls. Hopefully, I gave the group some fresh ideas and inspiration but it reminded me that one can learn a lot just by sharing our research stories with others. This is certainly an aim of my blog writing.
I hope you have enjoyed my first Jude’s Gen blog. It’s been fun to share with you something about the history of my family home. I think there is such a strong connection between family history and house history because they are bound up together. Similarly, combining information from different record sources can give you a more complete picture. The 1921 census, a visitor’s book, photographs and personal recollections can give you a sense of time and place, as I have explained here. Perhaps you can find similar sources that can be used together to learn more about your family and their homes in the early 20th century. And don’t be shy about sharing your research stories, we can all learn from each other. I look forward to being back with more family history news, tips, and opinion soon.
@ Judith Batchelor 2022