Little box of history
When I first set up this poor neglected blog, I said that I’d mainly created it so that I had somewhere to talk about my family history research. It’s taken a while for me to make a start, but here it is.
I started researching about 3 years ago when Dad asked me to find out more about his family and gave me a big box containing photographs, two beautiful old photo albums, a few receipts and bits of paper. Mum and Dad knew who some of the faces looking at me from the photographs were, as did I, but many of the faces were unknown yet with a hint of familiarity. I think I was hooked right then.
Dad knew quite a bit about his grandparents and the wider family around that generation, as well as snippets about his great-grandparents, but very little before then. We did know that my great-grandfather’s branch of the family had a long history in Warwickshire but that my great-grandmother came from Soham, Cambridgeshire. My great-grandfather, Arthur, had been apprenticed as a butcher in Erdington, now a suburb of Birmingham. He started his own butcher’s business in Coventry and ultimately owned a large slaughterhouse that was taken over by his eldest son, my grandfather. The business was owned by the family until my grandfather died (sadly before I was born). The picture on the left is my great-grandfather as a butcher – perhaps taken to commemorate him becoming a master butcher (I don’t know if there’s any significance in exactly what he’s wearing); the picture on the right is my grandfather, mimicking the same pose.
This seems to be a theme as my box contains almost identical pictures of Arthur and his eldest son wielding a riding crop. I can’t decide if this is sweet or a bit vain – or maybe it was just the done thing back then.
I digress… Not knowing much about family history, I made a start digging around on the internet. I fairly quickly found a census record for Arthur as a journeyman butcher in Erdington in 1901, as expected, which was a nice start! I then found a birth record for him in the late 1870s in Foleshill, then a village north of Coventry, and a census record for 1881, when he was living in Birmingham, with his older brother, their mother, her sister and the sister’s husband. His uncle was head of the household and Arthur’s father was nowhere to be seen. In 1891, he was still living in Birmingham with his older brother, his aunt and her husband. Further hunting led to the sad discovery that his mother had died of tuberculosis at the age of 28, when he was just 3 and his brother 5. His father still seemed to be back in Coventry. I assume that Arthur’s mother went to live with her sister when she became ill and that the children went with her. I was surprised that they hadn’t returned to their father when their mother died, but I guess that wasn’t feasible back then.
It was while apprenticed in Birmingham that Arthur must have met my great-grandmother Nell, who had moved all the way from Soham in Cambridgeshire to be a domestic servant at a big house in Edgbaston, according to the 1901 census. Later that year, Arthur must have become a master butcher, as they married in Coventry after he bought the premises that would be their home and place of work for the next few years. By 1911, they had two of their four children and enough money to employ a domestic servant of their own, but Nell continued to work as a bookkeeper. My Dad recalls her saying “I don’t need a lot of money, but it is nice to be where it is.” He always speaks of her with great affection, and the hint of a smile in the photo below makes me wish I’d had the chance to meet her (and I do also love the old cars in the background!). The picture on the right is, I think, Nell as a rather stern-looking child back in Soham.
My grandfather ended up a successful businessman, with his small butcher’s shop in Foleshill growing to become, so I’m told, the largest abattoir in the West Midlands at that time. Quite an achievement for a child whose mother died so young and whose father seemed essentially to abandon Arthur and his brother to their deceased mother’s family. I discovered in a pamphlet about Foleshill that the sounds that emanated from his shop ultimately led Christopher Cash to invent the Cash captive bolt pistols that meant animals could be stunned before slaughter. Unpleasant reading for the animal-loving vegetarian that I am! When Dad talks about Arthur, he comes across as a tough, strict and stern but likeable man; I suspect I’d have been a bit in awe of him had I met him.
My Dad’s simple request for me to research his family has given me a new hobby that has developed into a bit of an obsession. Dad’s pretty much lost interest in it now, and Mum has never been that bothered, so my continued efforts are purely to satisfy my own curiosity. There’s always something to do, and the trouble is often deciding what to tackle next. The break I’ve been forced to take over the last year while I’ve been ill has probably done my tree some good. My mission now, with a fresh eye and renewed enthusiasm, is not to find even more names to add to the hundreds already in my tree, but to find out more about how these people in my family actually lived and perhaps to put a few more names to the faces in the hundreds of photos that Dad has entrusted into my care.