Sunday, 24 June 2012

Edinburgh Bridewell Records: A Rich Source for Tracing Women

Some recent research has involved me searching the records of the Edinburgh Bridewell, a jail that once stood on Calton Hill in Central Edinburgh.
The information typically given in the records for each prisoner includes: date of commitment, name, age, crime, sentence and details of previous commitment.
What particularly struck me when searching these records was the number of women included and, at least for the period I was looking at, it appears that over half of the prisoners in the Bridewell were female.
The large number of women included in these records, together with the fact that, as in many Scottish records, women are recorded under both married and maiden surnames (although in some cases aliases were used), means that they are a surprisingly rich source for tracing female ancestors.  And the fact that the date of a person’s previous commitment is given, means that once you have located one entry, it is quite straightforward to trace previous offences.
The majority of those committed to the Bridewell were guilty of petty crimes, including theft, drunkenness, vagrancy, and begging.  The following is a selection of entries from the period 1814-1815:
Edinburgh Bridewell: Register of Warrants against Prisoners, Committed by the Court of Police  1814-1817
National Records of Scotland ref. HH21/6/3
1814 Augt. 15
Margt. McDonald or Simpson, 21, Breaking the Windows in Bridewell - 10 Days confinement & thereafter till she pay 5/- damages but not to exceed 60 Days

1814 Sept 13
Janet Thomson alias Helen Black, 44, Drunk & giving false & fictitious names - 30 days confinement

1814 Sept 30
Elizth. Fraser alias Johnston alias Sally Falconer[?], 28, Bringing in spirits to prisoners in P[olice] Office going to Bridewell - 30 Days Confinement

1815 Jany 31
Ann Stevens or Stevenson, 25, Rioting & fighting

1815 Augt 3
Janet Begg, 27, Pawning wearing apparel entrusted to her to mangle - 59 days on B[read] & W[ater]

1815 Augt 10
Betty Dewar or Campbell, 21, Vagrant, drunk & insisting on the Watchmen to conduct her home - 59 days b[read] & w[ater]

1815 Aug 4
Christian Bryce, 37, Drunk in a Stair - 59 days B[read] & W[ater]
Drunkenness was recorded as a crime more frequently for women than for men, suggesting that female drunkenness was particularly frowned upon.

Many Scottish convicts sent to Australia had committed previous crimes, so the records of the Edinburgh Bridewell and other similar institutions are also a valuable source for those tracing convict ancestors.
The records of the Edinburgh Bridewell are held at the National Records of Scotland (formerly National Archives of Scotland) in reference HH21/6/1-15 and cover the period 1798-1840.  Details of the surviving records of other prisons in Edinburgh and throughout Scotland are given at

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Is There Too Much About The War In Family History TV?

Last night the final episode of War Hero in My Family was broadcast on Channel 5 (UK).  The series followed twelve celebrities as they uncovered the part their relatives played in the Second World War.
The TV series Find My Past, which was broadcast towards the end of last year, took a different approach by connecting ordinary people to famous events in which their ancestors or relatives had been involved.  Of the ten episodes, three were concerned with events during the Second World War and one with the First World War.
Whilst it’s great to see more family history programmes being made, as someone who doesn’t have a particular interest in military history, I found the war related episodes of ‘Find My Past’ to be the least interesting and wasn’t attracted to the idea of ‘War Hero in My Family’.  However, the programme received an overwhelmingly positive response on social media and so I thought I should give it a try.
So far I’ve watched two episodes (the whole series is available through Demand 5 but only to those in the UK) but these failed to capture my interest and I can’t help wondering, am I the only one who finds all these war stories a bit samey? Even a bit dull?
I think much of my lack of interest can be traced back to school history lessons.  The prevailing belief at the time seemed to be that 20th century history is more relevant to young people than earlier periods, with the result that most of my contemporaries left school bored to tears with studying the Treaty of Versailles and writing essays on the causes of the First World War and with practically no knowledge of anything that happened prior to the 1900s.
Of course I can see why military history, and World War II in particular, appeals to programme makers: dramatic stories featuring life or death situations which can be illustrated with photographs, film footage and often interviews with survivors who witnessed the events firsthand.  Such sources simply don’t exist for earlier periods and ‘Ag Lab in My Family’ or ‘Domestic Servant in My Family’ would hardly have the same appeal!
Funnily enough, I did enjoy the episodes in more recent series of Who Do You Think You Are (UK) which focussed on only one or two ancestors (rather than tracing a whole family line) often in the 20th century and sometimes involving the two World Wars (not unlike ‘War Hero in My Family’).  Whilst some criticised these for a lack of ‘proper genealogy’, I felt that these illustrated what 'Who Do You Think You Are' (WDYTYA) does well: namely, demonstrating the breadth and range of family history.  WDYTYA has shown that tracing family history is not restricted to those with White European origins and that it can involve learning about recent relatives as much as about those who lived hundreds of years ago.  
Whilst some series of WDYTYA have been more varied than others, the episodes featuring wartime ancestors have tended to contrast with previous and subsequent episodes in the same series in terms of geography and time period.  Conversely, ‘Find My Past’ made the decision to broadcast the World War II stories as episodes 1, 3 and 4.  I’m sure this ‘turned off’ some viewers to the series who might have enjoyed later episodes such as ‘Suffragettes’ or ‘Royal Scandal’.
Genealogy has long since lost its preoccupation with male lines of descent but, inevitably when the focus is on military history, it is the stories of men which predominate.  Whilst women do feature, for example the work of a female plotter with the WAAF was explored in the ‘Battle of Britain’ episode of ‘Find My Past’, theirs are at best supporting roles.
I’m certainly not saying, “Don’t mention the war”.  There are some fantastic tales to be told concerning our ancestors in the First and Second World Wars and it is particularly important to capture stories from World War II whilst some of those involved are still with us.
My concern is that the current crop of family history programming, sponsored by the major commercial companies and and to some extent the public face of genealogy, may be putting people off learning more about their family history.  Just as my schoolfriends and I grew tired of learning ad infinitum about the world wars and in some cases were put off studying history all together, those with little interest in military history, or whose ancestors did not play a major part in the wars, may conclude that family history is not for them.
Family history is such a broad and varied field of study and there is little human activity that does not fall within its bounds.  It would be nice to see this reflected in family history programming.  To misquote John Lennon, “All I am saying is give peace a chance”.
Oh, and please, can we have a little bit more about women?!