Category Archives: Family History Hive

The Forgotten War – Burma Campaign

meningreenI’ve recently read the book Men in Green, the diary of a soldier serving in Burma during the Second World War.

Written during his service, this book covers Private John’s day to day experiences, conversations with friends and thoughts during his time in Burma.

It has been published by a former client of mine, Ann Markwell, who is the niece of the extraordinary Private Richard John. She remembers her Uncle Dickie fondly.

While it’s scant in dates and names of regiments, the diary is full of the details of the daily life of a soldier in the jungles of Burma. Private John began as a despatch rider, but was later sent to the front line to work with the signallers. He and his Company endured great hardship and lived through harrowing episodes, but the bravery and courage of the soldiers is what endures throughout the book.

As a first-hand account, written on the battlefield, it is useful to anyone who has ancestors who served in Burma, or who would like to learn more about the daily trials of soldiers fighting in the jungles of Burma. Be warned – some of the images of the brutality of jungle warfare may stay with you…

You can buy it at Amazon.

The Leaving of Loughrea: An Irish Family in the Great Famine

I’ve Leaving of Loughrearecently enjoyed reading this book, researched and written by Stephen Lally. It’s a fascinating account of the Lally family in the area around the town of Loughrea in Galway. It is of particular relevance to me, because it’s about the family of my 4x great grandfather, Patrick Lally. But the combination of general Irish history, local Galway history and family history makes this an informative read for anyone interested in their Irish ancestors during the time of the famine.

Stephen Lally covers the social and political factors leading to the great famine, conditions for the poor in Loughrea, and gives vivid and detailed accounts of the journeys of Lallys out of Galway to America, Canada and Australia.

It shows how the story of one family can be used to illustrate the lives and times of many others, so if you’re tracing your Irish family history during the 1840s and 1850s, it’s well worth a read.

The book can be bought on Amazon at

‘Hidden killers’ in your family’s history

I enjoyed this week’s episode of Hidden Killers (BBC 4, 9pm, Tuesday), about dangerous products invented and used in Edwardian times. What struck me was, in some cases, how long the dangers were known by manufacturers before the use of dangerous materials was stopped.

Len Collier

My Grandad, Len Collier, in the 1940s

With asbestos we were told the link to lung disease was recorded as early as 1899, and the first death attributed to asbestos was in 1906.

I can remember my grandfather telling me that when he worked as an engineer in London in the 1960s, making circuit breakers for the Aswan Dam, he worked with asbestos and would cycle home with his hair and moustache covered in it. As was usual for his generation, he made light of it.

He did have scars on his lungs and eventually died of lung cancer, but not until he was 90 years old. I guess he was one of the lucky ones.

It took until the 1980s for the use of asbestos to be completely banned in the UK.

Did your ancestors work with dangerous substances? Don’t forget to write down your family’s stories for future generations.

Discover your medieval ancestors through your surname

What can your family name tell you about your medieval ancestors?

Firstly, it may be able to tell you something about the occupation, parentage or location of a distant ancestor.

My Collier name comes from the occupation of charcoal burner, or coal seller, so (assuming there has been no illegitimacy) at least one of my ancestors from about 700 years ago worked in this industry.

Robinson is another name that appears in my tree, and so I can assume that another 13th or 14th century ancestor was called Robin or Robert.

Finally, my Blatchford ancestors take their name from Blatchford in Devon and so another branch of my tree would have been living there in about 1300.

The meanings of other surnames are harder to interpret. Was the first Mr Lilley the son of Elizabeth, a child with a fair complexion or from Lilley in Hertfordshire or Berkshire?

There are many surname dictionaries published and one very useful online site The Internet Surname Database. These offer suggestions of the meanings of surnames, but it is worth remembering that these sources are continually updated as the study of surname origins is continuous. As more information becomes available, more accurate definitions can be given to a surname.

But surnames can give more information about your ancestors than simply its meaning.

Distribution maps

A study has been done of the surnames recorded in the 1881 census. These are published online at Great British Family Names. Here, all names that had more than 100 bearers in 1998, have been mapped by (modern) postcode district.

A similar map can be found on the Ancestry website, using data from the 1891 census.

Searching the map shows how surnames were distributed throughout the UK. This can be an interesting exercise, as even common names, such as Collier, have densely populated areas, and areas where they don’t occur at all.

The Collier name was distributed along the western side of England, from south Lancashire to Dorset but, with the exception of Yorkshire, was rare in eastern England.

Although Robinson is also a relatively common name, its distribution was heavily weighted to the north of England. So I can now say that there was a likelihood that my ancestor called Robin/Robert lived in the north of England in c1300.

And, as anticipated, the name Blatchford was rarely found outside of Devon and Cornwall, confirming that this branch of my family line was almost certainly from south-west England.

Although there was migration in the UK before 1881, there is a surprising level of consistency between where a surname is based in 1881 and where it originated. Looking at the distribution of a surname can help to narrow down the options of where the surname began and where your medieval ancestors lived.

DNA testing

One relatively new way to help determine a surname’s origin is to use DNA testing. Using the Y-chromosome, which is passed from father to son in the same way that surnames are, can help to show whether bearers of a surname are related along their paternal line.

There is room for error, as what’s called non-paternity events can mean a surname does not reflect a direct male line (for example illegitimacy or adoption). However, if a reasonable sample of a surname is taken, it can help to identify how many origins the surname might have and can put people in touch with other family members who share their male line.
Sharing their family history research could help to identify their shared ancestor.

There are several companies that offer this, including familytreedna, Britain’s DNA and ancestryDNA.

We haven’t yet tested the Collier DNA, but as prices come down and the number of DNA samples collected increase, it is increasingly worth considering having it done.

Further reading: Surnames, DNA and Family History by George Redmonds, Turi King and David Hey.

History of English facial hair

It’s Movember once again, and I’m starting to see men around the town with the beginnings of this year’s autumnal facial displays!

But moustaches have been around for a while. When Caesar came to Britain, he recorded that the ancient Britons wore no beards except upon the upper lip. This was different to many European nations where it was most common for full beards to be worn.

When the Anglo-Saxons came to England, they wore full beards, but as they converted to Christianity, the clergy were obliged to be clean shaven, to distinguish them from the lay person. Over time Englishmen began to imitate the clergy and shave their beards, once again just leaving their moustaches.

The Normans went completely clean shaven, and William the Conqueror decreed that Englishmen must shave off their moustaches. Some men were reportedly so appalled at the idea that they chose to leave the country rather than give up their moustache.

In 1535, King Henry VIII introduced a beard tax, which was graded according to the social status of the wearer. Later, his daughter Queen Elizabeth I reintroduced the tax on all beards which had more than two weeks’ growth, making the beard a rich man’s accessory.

Perhaps part of the success of Movember is because it taps into an ancient British tradition and has reawakened the desire to have a hairy upper lip that lies deep within the genes of modern British men!


The miserly butcher!

Mr John Taylor of Great Dunmow, Essex, butcher, recently deceased, by his industry and economy had accumulated a considerable property, the knowledge of which he was desirous of keeping from the world; and, to gratify such a propensity, he secured his money in various parts of his apparel, where some of it has lain in a state of idleness for 80 years and upwards. A few days only previous to his death, Mr Taylor, at the earnest solicitation of his friends, made a will, but even then he did not disclose the whole of his property, which already proves to amount to several thousand pounds.

Bury and Ipswich Post, Wednesday 13 April 1825

Who Do You Think You Are? Series 10

Well, it’s been an up and down kind of series, with some truly gripping programmes, and one or two (in my opinion) stories that were slow to emerge.

Here are my favourite quotes of the series so far:

Marianne Faithfull: “It’s always a thing to realise that your mother is much more than your mother, that she was a human being and a person with a real mission in life… This journey has given me truth and this is what I needed and really wanted. Much more than stories and fantasies and illusions… Your family is the ground you stand on and what has happened is that the ground has been put back. I’m very lucky, thank you.”

Sarah Millican: “I was unprepared for how protective I would feel of my ancestors and you know, family is family, dead or alive, family is family.”

Nitin Ganatra: “I’ve got some kind of treasure I can hold onto that feels like it’s mine and my family’s.”

I’m looking forward to John Simpson’s episode which rounds the season off next week.