Saturday, 31 October 2009

Dead Woman Walking

This photograph shows my great-great-grandparents Albert Barker and Ellen Culpan with their children Mary Ellen, Louisa and Arnold. At first glance it's a pretty ordinary family portrait. However, there is something a little unusual about it.

It depicts a scene that never actually took place as, according to family story, it was created after Ellen's death. The surviving family posed for the photo and then Ellen was added in. Luckily for me, the story of the photo, and the original portrait of Ellen from which the image was created, were passed down through the family, as otherwise I think it would be quite easy to take it at face value.

There is a definite outline around the girl on the right which continues along her brother's shoulder but it would be easy to mistake this as being the result of movement or a fault in the process. There is a similar fault around the head of the girl on the left and along the top of the image.

Ellen died in 1892, aged 29. Presumably, there was no photograph depicting the whole family together and so it was decided to create one posthumously. I wonder if the portrait of Ellen dates from her engagement or marriage as her left hand, apparently wearing a ring, is quite prominently displayed. Albert and Ellen married in 1882 (see my previous post Marriage With Deceased Wife's Sister) and so Ellen may actually be somewhat younger than this image would first suggest.

I can't help wondering what was going through the minds of the family as they posed for this photo, leaving a gap for where Ellen should be. From the apparent ages of the children I think it must have been taken not long after Ellen's death and so they must still have been feeling her loss very keenly. To modern sensibilities the whole idea of the photo seems rather morbid but perhaps the family found it a comfort.

The image is a useful reminder that just because our ancestors didn't have Photoshop doesn't mean that every picture in the family photo album is necessarily “real”.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Registers of the RC Bishopric of the Forces

I've blogged previously about Scottish Catholic Registers, the first set of which are now available on

Also included in this set of records are registers of the Roman Catholic Bishopric of the Forces. The RC Bishopric of the Forces provides chaplains to the Armed Forces and, according to the website of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, “Differing from any other Diocese, the Bishopric of the Forces is not aligned along geographical boundaries but encompasses anywhere in the world that United Kingdom military personnel are serving or deployed”.

As may be gathered from this description, despite being made available on a Scottish genealogy website, the majority of these records are not related to events that took place in Scotland and in most cases do not concern Scottish individuals.

A list of registers included in the collection can be downloaded as a PDF from However, a word of warning: it appears that ScotlandsPeople is applying the same rules to these registers as to the Statutory Registers – that is images of records will only be made available on the site for baptisms of individuals born over 100 years ago, marriages that took place over 75 years ago and deaths/burials that occurred over 50 years ago. Therefore, many of the registers on this list, which cover the mid to late 20th Century, are not going to be included.

Admittedly this collection is probably going to be of interest to only a fairly small number of family historians but I hope it becomes better known because at the moment I feel it's rather hidden. After all, if your Irish ancestor had their child baptised whilst serving in Aldershot, England in the 1870s or your English ancestor converted to Catholicism whilst stationed in Cairo, Egypt in the 1930s you probably wouldn't think of looking for them on but records of both events would be there!

The RC Bishopric of the Forces Registers were digitised at the National Archives of Scotland along with the Scottish Catholic Registers which is probably why both sets of records have been released on as one collection. However, as indexes to Armed Forces births, marriages and deaths and British Overseas births, marriages and deaths are already available on ScotlandPeople's sister site that would seem to be a more obvious home for them.

If it is not possible to make the RC Bishopric of the Forces Registers available on how about a compromise – making an index to the records available on findmypast with a link to to then view the complete record? This would surely make the collection accessible to many more researchers and benefit both websites.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Who Witnessed a Marriage?

A question I recently read in a family history magazine suggested that the fact that a man was not named as a witness on his daughter’s marriage certificate was evidence that he had died by this date, or possibly that he was unable to attend the wedding due to illness or infirmity. This seems to presuppose that it was common for parents, or at least the father of the bride, to witness a marriage.

Although I have heard this belief expressed before it is not one I necessarily agree with. There are examples in my family tree of parents witnessing the marriage of one of their children, but I believe it was more usual for the witnesses to be contemporaries of the couple, often siblings, but sometimes cousins or close friends.

More specifically, in the 20th century at least, I thought it was usually the Best Man and Chief Bridesmaid who signed the marriage register as witnesses. This belief is confirmed by my paternal grandparents marriage in 1939. The marriage certificate names as witnesses two individuals who I recognise as the groom’s brother and bride’s sister. A detailed report of the wedding in the local newspaper shows that this same brother was best man and the sister the first named of three bridesmaids.

Searching English Parish Registers in particular, I’ve noticed the same names appearing as witnesses time and time again. I suspect that these were individuals connected with the Church and this certainly seems to be the case with two marriages in my family that took place in the Parish of Gorleston, Suffolk.

A William Bristow witnessed the marriage of my ancestors there in 1809 and a William H. Bristow witnessed their grandson’s marriage in the same church in 1892. A search of census returns indicates that a William Bristow and William H. Bristow, were father and son who both followed the double occupation of ‘Tailor & Parish Clerk’, the younger man taking over the role of Parish Clerk from the older. Both men appear to be have served the function of Parish Clerk well into old age. William senior is recorded as ‘Church Clerk’ in the 1861 Census, aged 67 and William H. Bristow as ‘Parish Clerk’ in the 1891 Census aged 71. If these ages are correct William senior would only have been about 15 at the time of the 1809 marriage so I wonder if he took over the role from another William Bristow, parish clerk - his father perhaps?

So why would the parish clerk be a witness? Does this imply that there were no relatives or friends present at the wedding? I suspect this may have been the case for the 1892 marriage. The couple in question had apparently been living together for over 10 years and had at least four children. It seems likely that the wedding would be a small, private affair, so as not to draw attention to the fact that they were not already married (as they had claimed in the 1881 and 1891 censuses).

However, I am not convinced that just because no relatives are named as witnesses that this always implies they were not present, and suspect there may have been another reason why parish clerks witnessed so many marriages.

For the marriage of my ancestors in 1809 there are actually four witnesses recorded in the parish register. Two signed their names in full and two signed with an 'X'. Although it is not clear, I wonder if the two who could write their names (one of whom was William Bristow) were not so much witnessing the marriage, as witnessing the X marks of the other two.

To avoid the need for this extra step was there perhaps a preference for witnesses who could sign their names? In which case, does the fact that a parish clerk witnessed a marriage not necessarily indicate that there were no guests at the wedding but rather none who could sign their own names?

If so, this might also explain why in the early 19th century and earlier witnesses often seem to be two men, rather than one man and one woman as was common later.

I would be interested to hear from others as to who witnessed the marriages in your family. Relatives or non-relatives? Parents or siblings? Literate or illiterate?

Saturday, 3 October 2009

A History of Private Life

This week whilst browsing through radio programmes on BBC iPlayer, looking for something to help me get to sleep, I came across a wonderful new series entitled ‘The History of Private Life’.

The series, which is broadcast on BBC Radio 4, consists of thirty 15-minute programmes presented by historian Amanda Vickery and, according to the press release, includes:

‘Men behaving badly, adultery on the sofa, servants running amok, witches, poltergeists, burglars, bashful bachelors, glamorous widows, wedding nights, rows in bed, bedbugs, pots and pans, the imperial bungalow and suburban love – all in their own words.’

As family historians it is perhaps with private life, the domestic, that we are most concerned. We want to know who our ancestors married, how many children they had and where they lived. This series explores how they lived and is based on research in archives across the UK.

Some of the most revealing material comes from private letters and diaries and so naturally is concerned with the middle and upper echelons of society rather than the illiterate masses, but there are also sources used that will be familiar to many genealogists including The Proceedings of the Old Bailey.

I think the strongest programme so far has been the opening episode entitled ‘The Bed’. A particular highlight was an extract from Samuel Pepys’ diary showing that married life has changed little in 350 years:

‘At night to bed, and my wife and I did fall out about the dog’s being put down into the cellar, which I had a mind to have done because of his fouling the house, and I would have my will, and so we went to bed and lay all night in a quarrel.’

The series also includes songs from the 18th and 19th centuries that have never previously been recorded.

The first five episodes are currently available on BBC iPlayer and there is also an omnibus edition and a discussion inspired by the programme. Further information, including details of the research behind the series, is given on the BBC website at