Some of you may be thinking of making a New Year’s resolution to follow up your family history.

Here are some wise words from Leslie Turner of the Manchester and Lancashire Family History Society.

Like many people, I do a lot of family history research.  I am often asked how far back I have managed to go and I think people are waiting to hear that I have traced my family back to William the Conqueror or Elizabeth I.  While I have had a certain amount of success tracing some ancestors, others have eluded me.    But, when I tell people some of what I have achieved and that ‘No, I have not gone that far back’,  I’m sure I detect  an  expression of disappointment,  followed quickly by a polite smile and then the look that speaks volumes and implies ‘you must be pretty rubbish at it.’

While many who pursue family history as a hobby try and add to their trees at a rate of knots listing birth, marriages and deaths I guess that I have been enjoying the journey and  trying to put together the ultimate travel guide rather than just a time table.  Attempting  not only to add names and dates to the tree but to fill in that gap.

Mind the Gap

Mind the Gap

You know the one I mean, it’s  that dash symbol between the birth and death date “-” and seems to delete so much.  All those people, places and events that give dimension to the lives of our ancestors and that tell us so much more.  Just imagine what they lived through, experienced and why for goodness sake did they do some of the things they did!

My example is an ancestor I have been researching called Henry Skinner.  I have known about Henry for many years now and inherited some documents from my Auntie who has ‘done’ the family history.  One of the many pages I received was a generation chart entitled Descendants of Henry Skinner and at the beginning it reads:

Henry Skinner 1793 -February 1866

Aside from naming Henry’s children, that is it on Henry, just 73 years of ‘gap’ and apart from confirming these details  I suppose I should now skip on ahead and climb further up my tree if I am to be a credible family history researcher.  I mean it’s a long way to the Middle Ages and William the Conqueror isn’t it?

Full Speed Ahead

Full Speed Ahead

However, by-passing Henry wouldn’t make for a very interesting journey, so I went in the first instance to look at one of the many online resources available and headed for the easy ones first, starting with the Census. This gave me an idea of what Henry was doing, who he was with and where he was living every ten years from 1841 up to 1861, the last before his death.   Great so, enough information now?  I scooped up Henry’s census information and for many years that was enough.  I deduced that this was a man who led a fairly mundane life.  Born and bred in rural Sussex, an agricultural labourer and the father of nine children, married twice and living out his days with his youngest son in Kent.

But of course things are never that easy.

Beware of trip hazards caused by speeding sharks

By examining a good selection of resources  I have been able to put together some of Henry’s story.  I have explored census returns, online trees (watch out for those!), Online Parish Clerks (opc), GRO documents, The National Archives (TNA), National Archive of Australia (NAA), FamilySearch, various newspapers and most recently the online Tithe Maps of East Sussex.  I have contacted distantly related ‘cousins’ in America and New Zealand (some who had photographs to share), I spoke again to family members and asked them to look in their lofts for any more information.  I made Google trips to East Sussex and physical trips to places like this .  Then of course there were books because not everything is online!  A great find for me was a book called Crime, Protest and Popular Politics in Southern England 1740-1850, which I’m sure would have made me shudder when I was in school.  I have also looked into the lives of Henry’s children and discovered information about them which in turn led to new discoveries about Henry.

Are we there yet?

Here is some of Henry’s story which started as a gap and has now been filled but is by no means complete.

Certainly Henry Skinner’s  life seems to personify the political and social unrest found in Britain in the early 19th century . Born in rural Sussex during the reign of King George III and at the start of the French Revolutionary war , Henry was  the 5th son of a Sawyer. In his early life he would have seen the decline of the rural economy and, if he could have read, he would have seen headlines in the paper about Luddites (the textile workers from the Midlands and the north of England who broke machines fearing they would cause unemployment), the Blanketeers (spinners and weavers on a hunger march travelling from Manchester to London with a petition to the King) and perhaps even have known some of the Swing Rioters.  The industrial revolution was sweeping the country. 


By the time Henry was 37 years old about six million acres of common land had been enclosed, this land which had for centuries provided grazing and land for the poor to grow their own produce was divided up among large landowners.  Farm workers were left landless and dependant on wealthier neighbours.  The growth years of the Napoleonic war when food and labour prices were high was over. Grain prices suffered and labour was oversupplied. Parish records identify that Henry’s family had received parish relief.

In 1839, Henry’s name can be found on the Tithe Maps of East Sussex and farming 5 acres of arable land and 1 acre and 29 perches of meadow land as a tenant farmer to absentee land lord Augustus Fuller, a member of the local landed gentry, whose family had made their fortune from the local iron industry. However, circumstances seemed to have changed  for Henry as by 1841 he is living and working at ‘Bonnicks Farm’ as an agricultural labourer and it seems unlikely he also farmed this land at the same time.

His family life was also to change drastically due to the rising population, under employment and unemployment, rising living costs, shrinkages in cereal farming and cuts in relief rates that were plaguing the country and in particular Henry’s parish.  Migration and publicly funded emigration were used to keep down demographic growth in this area so between July 1839-July 1854  five of Henry’s children were to emigrate; four to Australia and one to America. Though perhaps seen as a calculated risk at the time, there is no doubt that it  proved a good decision and his children gained a superior quality of life and financial benefits not to be found in England. 

Finally by 1861, Henry was described as widower on the Census and was living with his son John and his family in Kent.  I had wondered what had happened to his 2nd wife and when I failed to find a death for Sarah, I was suspicious and looked once again at the census returns.  I found that, far from dead, she also appears in the 1861 Census but on her own, still at Bonnicks Cottages and describing herself as the ‘wife of a labourer’.  It is unclear why they were estranged.  Between 1861 and 1866 Henry’s health must have been deteriorating badly and I discovered him on the death index in 1866. His life ended at St Bartholomew’s hospital in West London on 18th February 1866, his death due to a Calculus Vesica (gall stone) operation.  Had only Henry been able to hold on another year when in 1867 Joseph Lister was pioneering the use of ‘antiseptic’ surgery he may have survived.  Until then surgeons had been unaware that the high death rate during operations was caused by the spread of infection.  Lister’s discovery changed the face of surgery. Sadly, Henry’s operation pre-dated this and one can only image how frightening facing an operation in 1866 would have been.  To date, I have been unable to locate a grave for him.

HS grave number

A recent shake down of family members produced a letter from Henry’s son in Australia written in Oct 1866 which contained information about Henry’s grave.  Pity he never identified where the grave was!

So, I guess for the moment William the Conqueror will have to wait.  I’ve really enjoyed my  journey with Henry, even after some delay and a few detours, but I know my final destination is near.  I would urge you also to take the first steps and look deeper into your family history, enjoy the journey and remember to  Mind the Gap.

‘Arriving at one goal is the starting point to another’        John Dewey