The Society meets at 19:00 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. Book Stall and Reference Library plus refreshment available at the meeting.

Current Meeting Programme


28 January 2016
'Back to Basics’
With help for the beginner plus a refresher for the more experienced
Susanah Farmer

25 February 2016
‘Researching Military History’
How to find your military ancestors.
Jonathan Farmer

24 March 2016
Members Meeting & 'Illustrating Your Family History’
Make your family history more interesting to view for your family including examples of Scrapbooking
Audrey Reed

28 April 2016
'Research in the Library’
Getting the most out of your library and its free resources
Alison England

28 July 2016
'The Victorian Child’
Victorian children mortality and survival; children at work and play; education and the workhouses.
Liz Carter

29 September 2016
'Overcoming Obstacles’
The tale of Alfred Hyam Wicks, an Oundle tailor.
Alan Johnson

November 2016
Festive Meeting
The Society

Our meetings and sessions are all back for 2016, offering help to anyone researching their family history. We welcome new members no matter where your family comes from. Our Research Sessions are open to members and newcomers alike. We have an exciting programme of interesting speakers booked for the whole year ahead. We have already taken bookings to take our Interesting Information Displays to various events and venues to give an added interest to the events. We are also taking bookings to attend groups as guest speaker.

If you would like us to attend one of your events please get in touch.

COMPUTER RESEARCH SESSIONS. Our team of experienced researchers will be in Wisbech Library on the first Tuesday of each month. They offer help with family research to anyone attending. Using all the Library facilities including two subscription programmes for FREE. If you bring your laptop they will show you how to do your own research, or they will use their own laptops and do your research with you. We are there from 10 – 12 noon. A small team of researchers are in Wyevale Garden Centre Crowland on the second Tuesday of each month from 11 – 3 p.m. offering help with your family research. Both sessions are FREE. Everyone welcome.

FAMILY HISTORY MEETINGS our January meeting speaker was Susanah FARMER her subject was ‘Back to Basics’. We were able to refresh our memories and in some cases learn new ways of researching our family histories. Our next meeting on Thursday 25th February will be ‘Military Research’ led by Jonathan FARMER as our guest speaker. On Thursday 25th March the subject is ‘Illustrating Your Family History’ we look forward to learning new ways of displaying our Family History when our guest speaker Audrie READ will show various ways including Scrapbook records. She will bring a supply of material should anyone wish to purchase items. Everyone welcome to attend our meetings held on fourth Thursday of each month in St Peter Church Hall Wisbech from 7 – 9 p.m. Members free. Non-members a £2. For further information on any of the above please call 01945 587723

Summaries of Past Meetings

January 2016

'Back to Basics’ - With help for the beginner plus a refresher for the more experienced - Susanah Farmer

Festive Member MeetingAn audience of 26 including a new member and a visitor attended the first meeting of the New Year. Members were told about future displays that the society will be involved in: at Walpole St Peters, the Heritage weekend (Leverington and St Augustine’s); in order for this to happen Bridget would like to have copes of photographs of weddings that took place during the two world wars (not necessarily weddings involving service people). If necessary Bridget can copy photographs but she does need information about the people involved (names, dates etc).

Our speaker for the evening was Susanah Farmer, who is a member of the society and is also Editor of Ag Lab. Susanah called her talk “Back to Basics” and its purpose was to encourage all of us to keep on researching our families by showing us the diverse ranges of information that are available to us. She hoped to encourage beginners to make a start and the more experienced to consider alternative lines of enquiry. Susanah also said that she hoped to show that not everyone who does family history has to be an expert or even to have everything filed away tidily! She brought with her a (large) yellow archive box which held letters, photographs, certificates, invoices and other documents; she also had a file and a hard drive. The material in the box was often the starting point for a line of enquiry and Susanah pointed out that it helped to be nosy as that’s what family history is. She also said that she picks up her research at different points often sparked by some other enquiry.

People start researching the family tree for a variety of reasons and the form that the research takes is equally varied: some people try to go back as far as possible; some try to find everyone on their tree however distantly related; some people try to locate all living relatives; others are interested in location and social history.

Susanah knew that her mother had started a family history by asking family members to write down information: this information was of variable quality but there was one lengthy letter from he r grandfather that contained information that revealed a complicated family life with some unconventional aspects. Some family members are still unaware of the relationships and Susanah urged us to be aware that some information is very sensitive and it may never be possible to determine the truth. As Susanah put it: more dotted lines on the family tree and another item on the “To do list”.

Susanah illustrated typical problems that people encounter when using transcribed records by referring to a search for a relative she knew as “Ellen Rosetta Damms”. The 1881 census was originally made available as a CD after it had been transcribed in America; Susanah could not find the family in the Downham Market area but eventually found the name had been transcribed as Danius. In a later census the girl is recorded as Rosie which also made searching more difficult. Sometimes you have to make educated guesses and then confirm the guess. Another member of that family appeared to have the forename Gately but after lots of research he turned out to have been born John David Damms (why did he change his name? another item for the “To do list”). Susanah also referred to her search for a George Davies whom she knew to be an Artillery Pensioner – this took a great deal of investigating and Susanah suggested “parking” research until another piece of evidence comes to light.

Different sources of information are increasingly available - newspapers can be a useful source of information and some of them are available online – these also come with a warning – it’s very easy to be sidetracked. Older newspapers are often useful for announcements and court cases and more recent papers (since the 1930s) may contain more gossipy information. Suasanah discovered that a family home had been destroyed in the very last air raid of the First World War and then a second family home had been destroyed in an air raid the Second World War.

Wills can provide information and can often be accessed through internet sites as well as telephone directories and some electoral register, some school records are now online. Try checking the neighbours on census records – sometimes you can work out how people came to know each other. Susanah also suggested checking the free access sites: Freecen, FreeBMD and Freereg and Family Search.

Have you tried a Google search for people or places? What about Facebook? and public family trees on sites such as Ancestry? Susanah has received photographs of her own family as a result of contacts through internet searches.

In conclusion Susanah said that she hoped she had given people the incentive to carry on researching; everyone will research in an individual way to realise that you will also have a “To do list” which will get longer and longer.

The audience thoroughly enjoyed Susanah’s talk which got everyone talking in the social time after the talk – lots of ideas were exchanged and I’m sure we all went away ready to look again at our family trees (and to create “To do lists”).

[Margaret Lake ]

February 2016

'Researching Military History ’ - Jonathan Farmer

The audience was entertained and informed by Jonathan Farmer who gave valuable insights into the ways in which it is possible to research military history. Jonathan prefaced his talk by outlining his credentials as a military historian; he served in the TA for 38 years and did a 4 ½ year stint at The National Archives as a researcher in Military Records, he then did a part –time Master’s degree on First World War Records at Birmingham University.

Jonathan told us that accessing records for the Second World War onwards requires contact with the MOD who will need proof of relationship so effectively we are only able to research the First World War. One of the major problems is that two thirds of the Great War records were destroyed (accidentally) by fire in the second world war.

Most people starting out on research may only have partial information to go on: possibly a name, a medal, a story or a photograph. Some people are lucky enough to be able to locate information using sites like Ancestry and Find My Past but bearing in mind the problem with missing records and the fact that only those serving overseas were entitled to medal there problems to be overcome.

Photographs of servicemen vary in quality but Jonathan gave some very useful tips about looking for clues. He suggested that we learn to identify three of the cap badges (Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers and Army Service Corps) as those three regiments accounted for a large percentage of the army. If at all possible try to identify the battalion the serviceman served in as daily war diaries were kept by the adjutant of each battalion and those records are available The National Archives.

It is sometimes possible to identify more information that is specific to particular regiments but there are some general pieces of information that can be “read” in a good photograph. Chevrons on a lower sleeve identify the number of years that someone served. The first available was a red chevron for the British Expeditionary Force in 1914/15 and the subsequent years were blue so a photograph showing 3 chevrons would have to be taken in 1916 or later. Wound stripes were placed on the left sleeve and were made of 2 inch long gold Russian braid; the rules about who was entitled to these were continually tightened to prevent misuse. Good conduct stripes were awarded to privates and lance corporals and can be identified.

If you know your relative was awarded medals you may be able to access Medal Index Cards (available on Find My Past and Ancestry) – again two thirds of these were destroyed in the 1940 Blitz. The MIC will give name, Regiment, Service Number and information about specific medals as well as (up to 1916) the embarkation date which was the day that the soldier became entitled to a medal. Jonathan suggested the web site “The long, long trail” as good source of information about regiments.

The electoral register is a further source of information for the immediate post-war years as demobilisation took place into 1920 and absent voters are noted together with their regiment and service number.

Jonathan illustrated his talk with photographs and images and showed the audience how to identify different points and then took questions at the end of his talk. Once again we were treated to have a well- researched, informative and entertaining talk.

[Margaret Lake ]

March 2016

Members' Meeting

In a break with tradition we were entertained by two speakers, Audrie Reed and Nina Green, who came from Cambridge to encourage members to consider using “scrapbooking” for presenting family histories. we also had an exhibition of diufferent ways in which individual members have created their own family trees. These included embroidered and quilted panels of trees as well as scrapbooks and albums and a collage of a “This your life” family tree.

Audrie is a producer who creates film and photographic records for people and Nina runs a crafting materials business. They jointly talked about ways of illustrating your family tree and how to showcase your materials.

They prefaced the talk with inviting us to think about what we will do with all the material we have collected and what our children and grandchildren will do with all the material we leave them.

Nina spoke about the background to scrapbooking and how it has developed from the original Victorian way of creating books of scraps, pictures, embroidery and other materials which were kept together in commonplace books. Friendship albums were with quotations and notes were a development of this and people started collecting additional materials especially after photographs became widely available. Scrapbooking is an American term that covers the collecting and presentation of photographs and materials relating to a person or an event and then presenting the material in an attractive way.

Essentially it is a way of keeping everything together and making it accessible and relevant. A scrapbook could be a whole family tree or an individual’s life or indeed, a specific event such as a wedding. The important thing is to decide on the focus for the scrapbook: is it to be a whole tree, an individual or the mother’s family or the father’s family? In order to ensure that the scrapbook survives make sure that the materials(papers, adhesives, decorative items) used are of archival quality, photo-safe, acid-free and lignum-free. It is also important to make sure that the album can grow so start with a ring binder or similar. The usual scrapbooking size is 12” square as this is the US standard and there are lots of suitable materials available in this size.

One of the things that distinguishes scrapbooking from a photograph album is “journaling” which is the addition of written or printed materials to enhance or explain the materials. This of course makes it particularly suitable for creating family histories. Again the advice is to ensure that the ink or pen used is acid free and archival quality.

Audrie and Nina both emphasised the importance of being organised about your materials and suggested different starting points for a scrapbook. They also recommended being really organised about materials and suggested starting a resource file and making sure that photographs are kept with vital information about who, what, where and when recorded on them. Audrie suggested using scans of photographs rather than originals as it is then possible to crop or resize; it is often possible to find new information on scans of older photographs as many of the older 20th century photographs were printed up very small and a scan often allows you to enlarge the original image.

Various suggestions were made about using pocket storage for photographs, laminating newspaper cuttings and using additional materials to enhance and embellish the materials you have collected. They suggested using the internet to search for “scrapbooking family trees” for lots of ideas.

Members enjoyed the presentation and the opportunity to look at different ways of presenting family history from the speakers and other members. There was an opportunity to look at and buy a range of different materials that can be used in scrapbooking and certainly several members went home determined to start scrapbooking their family trees.

[Margaret Lake ]

April 2016

'150 years of rural change’ - Bryan Howling

Bryan started his talk by explaining that he would be talking about changes in the rural way of life during five reigns: from the accession of Victoria in 1837 to the death of George VI in 1952. This, he maintained was the period of the greatest change in rural life as it saw the transition from cereals being harvested by scythe to mechanical harvesting and vast changes in transport and communications and covered the essential changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution. In 1831 the population was 13.9 million and in 1901 it was 32.5 million - huge industrial and agricultural change allowed this increase to happen. He would do this by referring to his own village Terrington St. Clements and through photographs and records that related to the: Overseer of the Poor; Highway Surveyor; Tithes; Dike Reeves; Land Rate; Local Acts

Local records, especially from the Victorian era give lots of information about the way in which the village was run and organised and shed light on the ways in which taxes and rates were spent to improve life. The Overseer accounts show how money was spent to assist people in need through illness or accident as well as in childbirth. It is often perceived that the Poor Law of 1834 was in some way detrimental but the local accounts show that it could be a positive force for good and assisted people in time of need.

The Vestry records (which were the records of the parish administration) are an additional source of material and as Terrington St. Clement had a school there are lots of references to the school. The Vestry records show that some local taxes were paid in money and some in kind, thus, for example, some people paid taxes in the form of horse or horse and cart for two days for carting gravel from Tottenhill to maintain the roads which were metalled from the 19th century onwards.

Enclosure at the end of the 18th century and into the 19th century made enormous differences to the life of local people and there are references in records to the use of stock marks for the identification of animals which were grazed on common land. The Dike Reeves were responsible for drainage, ditches, hedges and bridges and local taxes paid for these so the records lie within the Vestry records.

Bryan then went on to talk about information that could be found in a range of materials such as the apprentice indenture for a boy from Terrington who was apprenticed to a periwig maker and records about brick making (many local farms had brick pits).

He then went on to talk about changes in agriculture and the old way of harvesting and cutting the grain, separating the straw and grain, building and thatching straw stacks as the straw was essential for animal bedding and for covering potato graves(clamps). Bryan was able to show photographs of all these processes. Change started to come about with the invention of steam power and Frederick Savage of Kings Lynn who is well known for his fairground rides revolutionised harvesting with a range of steam driven machinery. Bryan’s great great grandfather bought portable engine number 4.

In the Victorian era every village had its own grain mill and Bryan showed several photographs of different mills that once existed in Terrington and the surrounding villages. He also showed the weights of the various grain sacks that workers would have been expected to lift: wheat 18st (114kg), barley 16st (101kg) and oats 12st (76kg).

Bryan was able to show photographs of land work which demonstrate how much the work has changed over the years. The only occupation that seems similar is strawberry picking although the pickers in former times were completely covered with hooded bonnets covering the napes of their necks and the more modern pickers were in sleeveless tops and shorts!. There were photographs of potato pickers with willow baskets that were filled by the women and then tipped into larger baskets that the men then shot into the carts. Hay making was shown with the hay then being compressed into bales for transport to urban centres as horse feed. Once tractors became the principal form of power on farms a further 1.5 million acres of land was released for food production over the period from 1939 to 1962 (rather than fodder production for 5 million horses).

Bryan referred to the changes in transport that allowed crops to be delivered to urban centres and of course the changes that the railways and then road transport brought about. Terrington was on the Midland and Great Northern Line and this allowed crops to be transported easily such as strawberries sent off to market in Sheffield and Leeds. Seed potatoes were brought down from Scotland on coasters and delivered to Sutton Bridge (and Wisbech) - unlike today there was no frost protection and it was not unheard of for the seed to be frosted on the way down!

Bryan also showed the different shops that each community would have supported. He showed photographs of the Marshland Stores, the butcher, baker, the harness maker, the drayman, the farrier all of whom were an essential part of rural life as well as the delivery carts that took vegetables, bread and meat to local homes.

There was reminder of Wisbech with a photograph of the Michaelmas Hiring Fair (the Statute Fair) and the girls standing on the Town Bridge and their boxes stacked beside them – what became of the girls who weren’t hired that day?

Bryan then went on to show photographs of Harry Ferguson whose 3 point linkage system arguably underpins all developments in agricultural engineering and he concluded by showing photographs of machines that have replaced horses and men on farms: pea viners, vegetable harvesters, silage harvester, combine harvester, sugar beet loader and an image of a computer printout that is now commonplace in modern tractor cabs.

The audience thoroughly enjoyed Bryan’s talk and there were lots of “Do you remember?” conversations in the tea break afterwards.

[Margaret Lake ]

July 2016

'The Victorian Child’ - Liz Carter

Liz opened her talk by saying that every one of us has a Victorian child in the family tree, possibly even three or four generations of children. She then outlined the material she planned to cover: mortality and survival; children at work and play; education and the workhouse.

The statistics relating to the death rate of children were truly horrifying: in the 1840’s 153 children per 1000 died within the first year of life and in the 1890’s this figure rose to 163 per 1000 because of epidemics. Between 1860 and 1870 half of all deaths of children under 5 were attributed to diphtheria, a disease which is no longer heard about as all children are inoculated against it. In the 1890’s half of all deaths of children under 5 in industrial areas was caused by TB – this disease was almost eradicated but is worryingly making a return in the modern world with some a strains being antibiotic resistant One of the most distressing statistics was the fact that in the 1900’s in Liverpool 507 children died per 1000 because of overcrowded living conditions in a very densely populated city, lack of sanitation and clean water, poor food and generally poor living conditions.

From research that has been done it is possible to identify the commonest causes of death in small children (apart from disease). The Isle of Ely Coroners records from the 1840’s contain evidence of all the following causes of death. These include: failure to thrive which is sometimes recorded as atrophy (it is impossible to determine whether a child was born with a genetic condition or failed to thrive as result of the mother being unwell or poorly nourished herself); overlaying – this may be genuinely accidental as it was normal to keep the baby close to the mother but it is not unusual to find an illegitimate child or the youngest of a large family has died as the result of overlaying.: burns – very common at a time when heat and light were open fires or candles and washing was dried indoors; malnutrition – general living conditions were poor and there was no understanding of the nutritional needs of infants and the breadwinner would be first in line for food; opiate overdose – again very common as opiates were readily available and it would have been easy to give an infant too much when it was important to keep the child quiet in overcrowded living spaces.

[Margaret Lake ]

September 2016

'Overcoming obstacles’ - Alan Johnson

The secondary heading for this talk was “The tale of Alfred Hyam Wicks, an Oundle tailor” and it proved to be a fascinating and informative talk about all the different research techniques that were necessary to uncover the background of the father of Alan’s mother-in-law. Alan worked through the methods he used and illustrated each step with images of the documents he collected; it was also an illustration of the length of time it may take to complete the research: Alan started his research in 1988 and continues to collect information but the essential facts were completed in 2011 – 33 years later!!

Alan started the research in 1988 with minimal information to go on: the name, the fact that Alfred Hyam Wicks was married three times, he was a tailor and had had premises in Priestgate, Peterborough and that he had died in the mid-1920s. There were no certificates, photographs or newspaper cuttings.

The first step was to get a marriage certificate for the final marriage which gave Alfred’s age as 43, a widower and his father, Matthew, was a sawyer. His wife was Annie Elizabeth Greetham, 35, a spinster, daughter of James Greetham, a chairmaker. The second step was to get a birth certificate which showed that Alfred was born in 1874 and that the mother’s maiden name was Hyam. The third step was to get the 1881 census records (1891,1901 and 1911 would not be available until 1991, 2001 and 2011 respectively).

When the 1891 census did become available Alan hit a brick wall as he could not find Alfred Wicks or any other family member so he abandoned the research and took it up again in 2006 when he was given a gift that included a subscription to Ancestry. By this time, of course, the 1901 census was available and Alan was also able to find Alfred on the 1891 census as a tailor in Heckington. By 1901 Alfred was in West Street, Oundle aged 26 as a tailor married to Charlotte Oakley (Alan bought the marriage certificate showing that they had married in 1898). Alan used information in the census to do more research but was unable to find anything more about Alfred’ father.

The seventh stage of the research had to wait for the release of the 1911 census which showed that Alfred was a widower (Alan discovered that Charlotte died in 1909). Step 8 was finding Alfred’s second marriage in 1912.

Alfred died in October 1926 leaving his third wife with two small children and a stepson. Alan thinks the family may have been helped by the Salvation Army in the difficult times that followed the death of the breadwinner at the relatively young age of 48; he does know that the family moved into one of the first council houses in Peterborough in 1929; Alan’s mother–in-law married in 1949 and her husband moved into the family home and the tenancy was transferred to the younger family.

One major problem remained – Alan had been unable to locate Alfred’s father but in 2011 he had a breakthrough as a result of the Family Search release of indexed Norfolk registers. Matthew appears to have originated from Ickborough near Brandon and subsequently moved to Lincolnshire.

Alan gave an interesting talk that was enjoyed by everyone in the audience; it was particularly useful in giving pointers to different ways of “breaking down walls” and in illustrating the way in which family history research has changed over the 36 years since Alan started looking for Alfred Hyam Wicks.

[Margaret Lake ]

November 2016

Festive meeting

A good crowd of members gathered to enjoy the last meeting of 2016 with a bring and share buffet and several activities as well as a seasonally inspired talk by Keith Aplin. There was a competition for decorated cup-cakes and a couple of fun quizzes as well as individuals sharing their own Christmas traditions. Keith Aplin is a Lay Reader at St Peter’s Church in Wisbech and he is a driving force behind the collection of food for the Trussel Trust Food Bank. Keith told us about the old and new traditions that have combined to give the UK and North America the sort of Christmas we now celebrate. He linked the ancient traditions of marking the shortest day in mid-winter with festivals of light and feasting to the relatively modern Christian festival marking the birth of Christ. The Romans had a mid-winter festival of feasting linked to the dying of the year and increasing day length known as Saturnalia. Norse traditions tell of a wild hunt that is seen in the sky at the end of the mid-winter festivals; the hunt involves Odin or Woden being hauled through the sky in a sleigh pulled by an eight legged beast and accompanied by a raven – seeing or hearing the wild hunt was always an omen of death or disaster.

Elements of all these traditions are reflected in the ways in which we now celebrate Christmas: we light our houses (and towns) with coloured lights, we bring evergreens into the house and we eat, drink and be merry! We have Father Christmas who brings gifts and he is traditionally depicted as travelling in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer (Rudolph is a twentieth century addition). European countries celebrate the feast of Santa Claus on 5th December when Saint Nicholas or Sinta Claas delivers small gifts to children who have been good; he is accompanied by Black Peter who punishes naughty children.

In Britain Christmas was suppressed during the Commonwealth from 1649 -1660 but after the restoration Old Father Christmas was revived as a symbol of the “good old days” and he was responsible for delivering presents to children who had been good. He was dressed in green and in some ways harked back to old notions of the Green Man who is often incorporated in church buildings (Christians were very good at incorporating local and native traditions.) The red Father Christmas we are now so familiar with was unknown until Coca Cola gave him a red coat to better reflect their corporate identity!

The nativity story is only recorded in two of the gospels and each of these is told from a differing point of view; one is the story of Mary and one the story of Joseph. Keith sang two traditional carols (unaccompanied) to illustrate these two traditions. The nativity story as we understand it owes many of its traditions to St Francis of Assisi who wanted to emphasise the simplicity and poverty of Jesus’ background in contrast to the opulence of the church.

Much of what we celebrate at Christmas also goes back to Charles Dickens and “The Christmas Carol” and the poem “The night before Christmas” by Clement Clark Moore published in 1822.

Keith gave us lots to think about in the way we celebrate Christmas and the way different traditions have developed.

[Margaret Lake ]

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