The Society meets at 19:30 on the fourth Thursday of each month (except August and December) at St Peter's Church Hall in Wisbech unless otherwise stated. There is a map of the centre of Wisbech to show the location of the hall.
We have a full programme, including speakers, members' evenings and outings. An archive of reports of previous year's meetings is available.

Current Meeting Programme


August 2015
No Meeting

25 September 2015
AGM + Our President
Rev Wim Zwalf

22 October 2015
To be announced
Robert Parker

26 November 2015
Brick Walls
Festive Member Meeting

December 2015
No Meeting

Summaries of Past Meetings

January 2015

Researching your ancestors - Steve Manning - No report

February 2015

Writing your family history

Alan Johnson, Peterborough and District Family History Society

Alan gave an informative talk with lots of ideas and encouragement to get each and every one of us to write a family history to make sense of all the materials that we have gathered together. By way of encouragement he asked each of us to consider how much material we have that will be of no value to anyone else because only we know what is there.

Alan has written nine family histories so far and each one has started with a few basic questions. Who is the history for? – in the first instance Alan wrote a history of one person for his mother and aunts. What is the scope? – is it one branch, one individual or all descendants of a common ancestor? Where will you stop? – will you include information about you, your parents or children? Alan also asked people to consider sensitive issues and to be prepared not to include material that may cause distress; it may be possible to embargo that material until some time in the future.

On a practical note, how will you produce the information? – longhand and typing are probably impractical so using a PC is probably the best option as it is easier to edit and to add material as well as to circulate especially if you use Word or PDF rather than a publishing programme. You also need to consider the form in which it will be produced: a printed book or booklet which can be expensive; a CD or on the Web; Alan has used report folders for the printed versions of his family histories which have the advantage of being able to be added to or amended easily as well as using CDs.

Having decided to write the history, you need to be specific about the information that will be included in the history and be organised about the order. In the introduction indicate what will be included and what will not. Always include a family tree, acknowledge your sources and use illustrations where available and always be aware of copyright. If you have lots of information it may be appropriate to write a separate history of a spouse.

Alan recommended finishing the history with a sentence such as “That concludes all that I have found out about X so far” or with an anecdote.

Alan gave an interesting and informative talk, let’s hope that it inspires each of us to put together at least one family history ……………….

[Margaret Lake ]

March 2015

Members' Meeting: held on Thursday 26th March

Thirty members attended a lively meeting with individual members presenting family stories. The evening was organised slightly differently from usual. We had the members’ stories followed by tea or coffee and the evening finished with a presentation on George A. Ward 1780 – 1860, who lived and worked in Wisbech: Judi Upton presented a detailed summary of his life using a wide range of resources to illustrate and confirm the information. This included John Peck’s diary entries, newspaper reports, legal documents, wills and photographs.

Some ”distant” members sent information in and there were displays of information to look at.

We had a real variety of stories with lots of local names and places mentioned. We started with the tale of grandparents who lived apart in Spalding and Fleet; then we saw a wedding photograph of the Friend family taken in 1903 in the orchard area near Sandyland . Another member sent in a photograph of a wedding that took place in Elm between members of the Hunter-Rowe and West families.

Another member told the story of her great grandfather “Potato Joe” Bettinson who farmed in Outwell, Upwell and Friday Bridge: he pioneered the introduction of Scotch seed potatoes, sugar beet and carrots and was also renowned as a horse breeder and for pedigree cattle. Another tale was told of a night time skating party held on the Well Creek in 1912.

Another member told the tale of her father’s 22 year service in the Gordon Highlanders and about his decision to marry based on a photograph he saw while serving in India.

Bridget told some anecdotes about her family including one about her grandmother who decided to teach her husband a lesson by making it seem as if she had gone missing as the result of a fire. He spent hours looking for her only to find her safe asleep in her bed!

Another member showed us a report from The Times published in the 1830’s. Her ancestor had been interviewed to find out the effects of the new Poor Law which had had a really detrimental effect on living conditions. The interview was very detailed and gave lots of information about life and living conditions specific to her family.

After last month’s meeting when we were encouraged to “sort out our family histories” a member who was sure he had no local family had discovered an ancestor living in Guyhirn - he had done some further research and found out that he had originally come from the Buckinghamshire/ Hertfordshire area.

This is just a brief synopsis of what was a very interesting evening with examples of different ways of presenting a life story or an incident.

[Margaret Lake ]

April 2015

WWII Plus - Mike Petty

April 2015 meeting report: Speaker Mike Petty: writer on local history and previously in charge of the Local Collection at Cambridge Central Library

Mike started his talk by saying that later this year he will be delivering three talks at the Octavia Hill Museum as part of the Nene Ouse Washes Landscape Partnership; the talks will be: 1. Who built the Bedford Level? 2. How do we find out? 3. Who lived alongside? Mike also explained that he has now stopped writing his weekly columns in the Cambridgeshire paper but all the columns are available and searchable on the internet.

Mike also referred to the proposed relocation of the County Archives and Local Collection to new premises in Ely.

The main talk was about the importance of local newspapers as a source of information for family historians and particularly the amount of information that is available for the Fens in the 1940’s. Mike used illustrations from the local papers to follow the course of the war and to give a different slant to the accepted view of some of the stories we think we know about. For instance, few of us knew that when it seemed that war was imminent in early 1939 children had been evacuated to the Cambridge area and then returned home only to be evacuated again in September 1939 when the war started in earnest. There were lots of pictures of children with their luggage labels.

Farming underwent an enormous change because whereas for the previous two decades there had been an agricultural depression farm produce was in demand and the land under the plough in the Isle of Ely rose from 12 million acres to 19 million acres and there were a lot of stories about new land being ploughed and photographs of bog oaks being dug out and laid along roadsides. There were also stories and photographs of Land Army girls doing their month long training at the Cambridge University Farm. Mike said that he had been talking about this at an earlier talk and one of the audience said that she had been at work at Burwell and as a boat approached the girls were asked to stop work and line up – the King and Queen stepped off the boat and they spoke to them and thanked them for the work they were doing.

Newspapers also provide huge amounts of information about what was going on in communities with photographs of the Home Guard, fund raising for Spitfires, Hurricanes and ships – local communities often supported an individual plane or ship.

There was also a great deal of contemporary “anonymised” information about the amount of air raids and war damage that occurred. For instance the first city in the country to be bombed was Ely but it is referred to as a city in Cambridgeshire and Cambridge is a town in Cambridgeshire. A terrace of houses in Cambridge was hit and among the dead were children evacuated from London …. Although no detail is given about actual places the Air Raid Wardens’ records were published after the war and give precise locations and detail of the damage.

D-Day was planned in Cambridge when Montgomery and Eisenhower met there and military exercises took place on rivers and local people remember a boat sinking on the Ouse with significant loss of life.

Another aspect of local life was the coming of the US forces and the number of POW camps both German and Italian; many of the POW’s became integrated into local life as they worked on farms and some stayed on after the war and married local girls.

The end of the war in Europe was marked in local papers but as many local regiments were in the Far East the coverage was tempered and more subdued than might have been expected.

Mike concluded his talk with references to the appalling winter of 1947 with images of the flooding of the Fens as result of the exceptionally heavy winter snow followed by a sudden thaw and then a northerly gale that prevented the tide in the Wash going out – the flood defences were breached and an area of 100 square miles was under water with houses and lives and livelihoods destroyed. The armed forces were deployed and the breaches in the flood walls were filled with army tanks which were then buried to create solid barriers. The newspaper images of the flood and its aftermath illustrate the power of the local press very effectively as each image is worth far more than a thousand words.

[Margaret Lake ]

May 2015

Keep it clean - Anne Barnes

Anne gave a well-researched, informative and thoroughly entertaining talk that covered 4000 years of history. She started by getting us to think about how we would use water if we had to walk to the source and then carry it back: washing the body would not be a priority as water for food and drink was a more immediate need. The first known bath was found in Crete and dates to about 2000BC, we know that the Egyptians had baths and latrines and that the Romans were famous for their plumbing for communal, public baths and latrines.

As an aside Anne told us about several early Christian saints for whom washing was anathema: St Jerome and St Agnes never washed and St Catherine tried never to wash. Monks in the early Christian church washed four times a year but washed their feet weekly on Saturdays. Mediaeval monasteries in this country were built with communal latrines (the rere dorter).

The Vikings were known to be much cleaner than their contemporaries, they combed their hair and bathed weekly as well as changing their clothes weekly.

In the later middle ages privacy was an unknown luxury and baths, when available, would be shared and, indeed beds were often shared as well. It is known that there were public latrines in this country until the mid-fourteenth century and after the Black Death there were rules about cess pits being constructed but public latrines seem to have stopped being provided. There was some idea that immoral behaviour had been encouraged by communal bathing and that the Black Death was a punishment for this immorality. It is known that chamber pots were in use and were commonly made of earthenware although some were made of base or even precious metals, the disposal of the contents of the pots was not regulated, of course.

The first water closet was designed by a godson of Elizabeth 1, Sir John Harrington in 1596. It is known that he bathed daily but the Queen bathed once a month, whether or not she needed it! James 1 notoriously only ever washed his fingers.

The next significant development comes in the late 17th century when spas began to become popular. Places like Bath, Buxton, Cheltenham and Harrogate began to attract visitors who would drink the waters or bathe in them for health reasons. In the eighteenth century John Wesley preached the virtue of cold baths.

There was no indoor sanitation although wealthy people were beginning to install bathrooms and lavatories. Queen Victoria had a lavatory installed in her GWR carriage. Apparently the convenience in her Great Eastern train carriage was disguised in a sofa! Prince Albert oversaw the installation of plumbing at various royal residences.

During the 19th century it became more common to construct cess pits with a water closet for a group of houses and as the link between hygiene and health was recognised schemes for the construction of sewers and sewage farms were drawn up. Various Acts of Parliament such as the 1846 Public Baths and Washhouses Act. enabled improvements. In 1851 Public Conveniences were installed at the Great Exhibition and these proved very popular.

Anne’s talk was very well received by the meeting and it elicited lots of response; after the talk members chatted about unusual “facilities” and particular public conveniences in the area (the underground one on Wisbech Market Place; the double seater at the Haigh Assembly rooms in King Street, Wisbech). This was a thoroughly enjoyable and informative talk.

[Margaret Lake ]

July 2015

Skeletons in the cupboard - Liz Carter

Liz introduced her talk by saying that although she had intended to illustrate it using her laptop it would not be possible as the laptop had been damaged by a glass of blackcurrant squash!

She intended to talk about ways of researching mysteries and myths that all of us have in our family trees, by researching “skeletons” it is possible to flesh them out and fill in gaps. As she is a professional genealogist she would only be using examples from her own or her husband’s family as she could not breach the confidentiality of her clients.

Liz explained that she had become interested in family history as her own surname “Ganniclifft” is particularly unusual. She talked about the reasons that people changed their names (other than through marriage) and about events that individuals might want concealed and she suggested that it would be worth investigating whether the concealment was deliberate.

Liz talked about her own complicated family and a tale of divorce that she was able to research. She included anecdotes about families from her home area of Huntingdonshire.

This was an entertaining and interesting talk with lots of ideas about sources of information that could be used to flesh out the skeletons on a family tree.

[Margaret Lake ]

September 2015

Lies, damned lies and family history - Wim Zwalf

Wim entertained the meeting with a new talk he has been driven to research as he feels he has taken both strands of his family tree as far back as records will allow. This has meant that he now needs to look in more detail at some of the stories and tales that have circulated within the family (and indeed every family) – the stories from “Aunt Ada” which may have a kernel of truth within them but may also be lies or damned lies.

Wim started by suggesting that the reasons for some of the incorrect information may lie within transcription of documents which may have been difficult to read because of difference in the way we recognise certain letters or combinations of letters. There have also been problems in the accuracy of transcriptions such as the IGI, parish records and censuses. Wim illustrated this with an example of a marriage which had been mis-transcribed with the bride’s name being copied from the line below. He had also spent considerable time trying to trace a census entry which was given as ‘Culnaort’; after considerable effort and visits to Northumberland it turned out that the place was actually ‘Cullercoats’!

Wim explored the history of family members who had emigrated to Australia and by looking at census records was able to identify the links that had led to his relative emigrating. He also used a wide range of materials to extend his knowledge of ancestors – advertisements and newspaper reports (from Dutch papers) which disproved a family story that a great grandfather had died a ruined man following a fire at his business premises. In fact he died some years later having retired to a popular retirement town.

We were all impressed by the information that is provided on Dutch marriage certificates (since 1812). The documents are family trees in themselves and provided information about the principals and their parentage (including occupations) as well as the witnesses.

Yet again Wim presented us with an entertaining and informative talk which made us think about how we research and what additional sources we might use to extend our research – and how to check whether a story is a lie or is in fact family history.

[Margaret Lake ]

October 2015

Searching for William – from Liverpool to Oz to Lewes - Robert Parker

Rob Parker is a well- known Family Historian who started doing family history research and then became a trainer and tutor. He has written articles about both sides of his family. The topic of this evening’s presentation is from his mother’s (Nash) side of the family.

Rob introduced the talk and said he would welcome questions at any point of the talk, he also said that there would be a quiz on Australia in the middle with a prize (a box of chocolates for the winner). Most of his research is now done using the internet but (and it is a very big but) only 5% of records are online and the chances are that only 9% will ever be available so Rob advised us that we must be prepared to use Record Offices and other sources of information.

The subject of Rob’s search was William George Nash who was his grandmother’s brother who was born in South East London in 1904. Rob started researching before the internet was available and he started with his grandmother’s parents. These were Mary Ann Elizabeth Morris and Edward Nash. Rob thought his great grandmother would be easy to find but he hadn’t bargained on her being known as Polly in census records! Edward Nash went on to become a Police Inspector and the story of his son William was that he fell out with his father (for whatever reason) and he went to Perth in 1925. It was known that he married and then he and his wife split up and William left his wife with a 5 year old son. During the Second World War the Australian family sent food parcels to the family in London but then all contact was lost. This was the sum total of Rob’s knowledge of William.

In 1991/2 Rob took year out and went round the world, he visited Perth and checked records in the library – he discovered that he had been looking for George William Nash rather than William George as it should have been but found it difficult to get any further. In 1995 he decided to try again and was then able to get on an internet mailing list which gained some responses.

He was able to track down William’s birth using BMD and it was suggested by Rootsweb that although it was known that William had gone to the Gold Coast in 1925 it might have been the Gold Coast in Africa rather than the one in Australia. Rob also contacted the Australian National Archives and they suggested that Second World War military records might yield results. Rob was able to find that William had served in the army and he saw his pay records but that he had been discharged on 23/2/44 “to maintain essential supplies”. It was completely unknown that William had been involved in farming and apparently he was a dairy farmer and from subsequent researches using Post Office records Rob was able to establish that William had lived in Wellard an important dairy town south of Perth (at the beginning of the war there was 1 farm at the end there were 34 dairy farms).

After contacting the State Library, Rob was able to trace a marriage record for William to Hazel Sophronia Dow and even more surprisingly he was able to establish that she was still alive at that time. Rob wrote to Hazel and after 3½ weeks a letter came back saying, ”you have found your relative”. Unfortunately Hazel was not able to tell Rob what had happened to William after he left her with a 5 year old son, Mark Nash who now lives in Lewes, Sussex.

As a result of information provided by Hazel, Rob used shipping records to establish that William left Liverpool in January 1925 and went to Calabar (Gold Coast, Africa); he returned to England in 1926 or 7 and then aged 23 went to Fremantle, Australia. Then, there are no further records until the 1940’s . Rob did manage to find a museum volunteer at the Rockingham Museum in Wellard, who remembered William as “very strange with a rather abrasive manner”.

Rob then managed to contact Mark Nash in Lewes and arranged to meet him in London. It transpired that Mark had no memory of his father and had employed a genealogist to do some research but it was based on the wrong man! Mark didn’t get on with his mother but after her death which occurred shortly after Rob first contacted her some letters were found in her effects which hint at a further mystery: in one letter William refers to having travelled to Perth from Sydney under the name Reynolds! Does this explain why he has been so elusive?

Rob is still searching for William and as yet he has not found a record of his death.

This was a thoroughly entertaining and fascinating account of Rob’s search for William; it demonstrated the breadth of resources available to the determined researcher and many different ways of breaking down walls. Rob also provided an email link to his own website with addresses. The quiz about Australia in the middle also made everyone think - who knew there were that many different types of kangaroos and wallabies .( I can’t reveal the answer as Rob will want to re-use the quiz!)

website link:

[Margaret Lake ]

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