16 August 2017

The Coal War and Family History

Politics, coal, mining and undermining have had a long, interrelated history.  Even today, in England and elsewhere, political views may tend to correlate with experiences of former coal mining areas.

What are the features of a normal way of life, in your view?  How do you define politics?

In recent years, here in Australia, much of the economy has been focused, perhaps too heavily, on the mining industry.  My husband's maternal family has been strongly connected with the mining industry, as have many other migrant groups and low-skilled workers.

Many young women, like my mother-in-law, preferred to live - and marry - outside mining communities, when offered that choice.  They did not want the worry of their husbands - and sons - being killed or injured in one of the regular mine accidents.  In fact, there was a major mine disaster nearby on the day my in-laws married.

When you were growing up, did your way of life seem to be normal to you, and did your experiences seem fair?  Was the environment in which you lived ordinary to you or somehow unusual?

In the 20th century, there were power engineering industries of the English Midlands where my family lived.  There was many type of engineering work in the area then, just as there is today.  My grandfathers both worked as engineers at the same factory from the late 1940s until they retired.  They contributed to the production of the huge transformers used in coal-fired power stations.

My childhood in England during the early 1970s had been affected by events such as the three-day week, and the high inflation as consequence of the 1973 oil crisis and the high unemployment of the subsequent recession.  I did not understand why my parents seemed to have so little money.  They never appeared to have any savings at all when I was growing up.

Whenever I looked out of my bedroom window in my middle childhood years, a huge coal-fired power station dominated the skyline.  I just considered it to be horrible and ugly.

My father worked in technical and engineering jobs, but he never worked in a factory, or a mine.

Was anyone in your family directly or indirectly involved in mining or power generation in the 19th or 20th centuries? 

Have you mapped your family history in relation to coal?

My mother's great grandparents and earlier ancestors would have been familiar mainly with a small area of Shropshire dotted with coal and ironstone mines.  The mines dominated their lives.  When a mine closed down or reduced its workforce, the miners would move elsewhere.  My mother's maternal grandparents went to live in Wednesbury, then in the south of Staffordshire:

There are three excellent sources of information about the area:

A history of Wednesbury by Bev Parker

Wednesbury mining history forum

Mining in the Black Country by Mick Pearson


Around the world, there has been a long history of mining accidents.  A knowledge of that history could easily save lives, if implemented.  A knowledge of the risks of disease can also prevent suffering, at least when there is openness about the causes of pneumoconiosis and other lung problems.  There are still health problems in mines today.

My husband's maternal grandfather injured his leg in a mining accident in the 1930s.  He died of lung disease in the 1940s, long before being eligible for an old age pension.

Why should anyone risk life and limb just for somewhere to sleep and eat?  My husband's grandparents came to Australia to escape Fascism in the 1920s.  Were they any safer at their destination?

All my mother's heritage in connected to the 19th century mine workers, just to the north of Coalbrookdale in Shropshire.  Her ancestors, as men, women and children, would probably have been familiar with corfs and hurrying, both before and after 1842.  There is a fifty page section of the Children's Employment Commission (Mines) report of1842 available online in relation to Shropshire, leading to the Mines and Collieries Act 1842.

Do you know much about the 19th century mines and communities of Shropshire, or Staffordshire, or anywhere?  Do you know if any of your ancestors were members of the Midland Counties Miners' Federation?

Most British industry in the past two hundred years has developed in relation to cheap, accessible coal and the efficiency of transport routes, starting with canals.  Do you know much about the historical relationship between British coal mines and the development of British canals?

You may have heard of data mining and data about mining.  When I was young, I wanted to distance myself from anything associated with mining and roughness.  I worked in offices in London, though politics has long been one of my major interests.

Australia, 1887
City smog is bad for anyone's health, though there are dangers even in rural areas from coal seam fires.  People near the Hazelwood coal mine fire in Australia know this from their own experiences.  Who should own potentially dangerous assets, in your view?  And who should benefit most from those assets?

I am reminded that 1816 was the year the Davy Lamp was first trialled.  I have managed to trace my maternal line back to that time, when they were living in the mining community of Dawley in Shropshire.

1816 was the Year Without Summer.    What were your ancestors doing in 1816?  What would they have considered to be a normal way of life?  What were your ancestors doing in 1916?

Do you now consider your past and present experiences to be part of a normal way of life?  How do you define normal?

When I lived in London, the 1984-1985 miners' strike seemed more remote in relation to my own life than the events of the 1970s.  Did it have any affect on you and your views of politics and economics?

During the 1980s strike, I worked at the BBC in production office of Newsnight in the television current affairs department at Lime Grove Studios in west London.  I was in my early 20s and only vaguely aware of my family history.  Coal mines were closing during that time, just as they had in the past.

There was much conflict between miners and the police on the picket lines.  There were extremist views expressed by political players on both sides of the dispute.  I could not understand why so much television news coverage was devoted to the strike when there were so many other significant issues in society.  Nor could I understand why anyone would want their sons and grandsons to have jobs in coal mines.

There had been mining in Shropshire since Roman times.  Miners had often faced possible death or injury on a daily basis.  The mines where my 19th century ancestors worked had closed down long before 1984.

Usually, I define politics simply - as competing views about fairness and unfairness.  How do you define it?  And how do you incorporate political issues into your family history narratives?

With coal being a major cause of climate change, the war on the environment, and the poor, continues.  How do you look at your family history in this context?

Here are a few of my other earlier blog posts you may find relevant to your own investigations:

Finding great grandparents

The age of reflecting on age

Staffordshire miner becomes Prime Minister of Australia

The working lives of ancestors

Lily of Lawley Common

Liberty, Normandy June 1944

A Shropshire lad called Harry

Superstitions and traditions

Treasure troves

My fair ancestors in Mayfair

The importance of being earnest with Alice in wonderland

Our changing perceptions and opinions

A genealogical look around

Shropshire pit girls and wenches

Italian migrants and their family histories in Australia

Discovering Shropshire history

Work. literacy, poverty and conscription

07 August 2017

Big Data and Family History

Have you heard of big data at all?  Do you know about data cleansing?  These days, family history research is often very high tech!

How do you make comparisons between your ancestors and people who came from similar backgrounds?  I find it very interesting to explore, contrast, compare and consider people's career paths and life experiences, and life opportunities.

Your great grandparents will probably not even have known that various information about them was stored in a dusty old archive somewhere or other.  They probably could never even have been able to imagine the power of supercomputers, unless they read science fiction stories in their spare time.

Big data is something your 21st century research into your family origins has in common with scientific research into the laws of the universe, predictions of climate change, and continuing genome investigations.

Although other commitments prevent me from offering specific genealogical assistance beyond my personal interests, each of my blogs may assist your reflections on the past, present and future - and enrich your experiences of family history research.  There is plenty of information available here.

You are most welcome to contact me if you have some information of relevance to the investigations underway here.

I know from examining other people's research into my ancestors that some of the information I have about my own family history is probably inaccurate.  We all have to start somewhere and I like to put together as much evidence as possible.

Much of the information I want to access in the next few months is in the Westminster Archives.

Information about my Belgian ancestors may be in the Roman Catholic Registers, perhaps showing when they first arrived in Britain.

There is also theatrical information in the archives, where I may possible find a reference to my Belgian great, great grandfather's work as a theatrical costumier.  He may have known Willy Clarkson.

I am not sure whether my great, great grandfather designed costumes.  There may be something about his work in a newspaper called The Era.

I have also just discovered Archives Hub though I am yet to understand how to use it. 

10 July 2017

Family Spice Mixtures

In the first half of the 20th century, the only prosperity anyone in my family appears to have experience was connected with the spice trade.  A spice warehouse in London provided employment for my paternal grandmother in her teens.  She worked there with several older members of her extended family.

You may wish to read my entire, earlier brief series called The Spice of Life:

Part one

Part two

Part three

Part four


On my travel blog, Continual Journeys, I have also mentioned the spice of life

How do you tell the difference between a spice and a herb? How do you use spices and herbs?  How did your ancestors acquire and use spices and herbs?







What is your understanding of the economic reasons for the European Age of Discovery?  And what do you know about the history of the world economy?

During the expansion of the British Empire in the 1700s and early 1800s, spices and other prized goods from Asia were imported to warehouses through the London docks by the East India Company.

London docklands became the warehouse of the world from 1840 to 1940.  But who mainly benefited from that economic activity, and who did not?

Where, exactly, my grandmother worked is something of a mystery to me.  Finding information about the location online has been difficult.  I am sure she did not work in the Shad Thames warehouses though there is a brief but interesting Hidden London history of that area.  There is also an interesting old photograph of the area on the 365 project.

There were many other docks and warehouses in London.  There were spice warehouses in the East India Dock at Blackwall, for example.

In her 90s, my grandmother told me the Tower of London and Tower Bridge were not far away from where she travelled to work by bus in the early 1930s, along Commercial Road in East London from her home in Finsbury Park in North London.

There are many sources of history about the London Docklands, including the Port of London Authority.   There is a Museum of London Docklands associated with the Museum of London.








I have also found a past and present panorama view of London's changing riverscape to compare.  There is also an interesting PDF document about London Dock.

Perhaps the spice warehouse where my grandmother worked was situated in Wapping.  It may have been converted into luxury apartments in the 1980s.  I have found a few such flats available for holiday rentals.

When I lived in London in the 1980s, I never really had the urge to go to the East End.  At the age of 19, I shared a large flat in West Hampstead in North London with four middle-class young women of my own age.  That was when I worked as a secretary at the BBC.  I later lived in a large house with an academic family near Clapham Common, in South London.

Little did I know, at the age of 19, that my grandmother's most affluent relative, had lived in West Hampstead in late Victorian times.  Uncle Louis Verheyen was the manager of the spice warehouse.






The City of London has long been involved in the commercial aspects of importing and exporting.  As a young woman, I was much more interested in working in the media than in any other industry, though the money offered in the financial sector was certainly much more than I was receiving.

But I felt fortunate that I worked in relatively comfortable offices and newsrooms, not in a warehouse or factory or a shop or elsewhere.  And unlike many other young people in the 1980s, but certainly like my grandmother in the 1930s, I had an income with which to develop my independence.

I first began writing this blog at the beginning of 2009, when the UK (but not Australia) was in recession again.  In many ways, I consider my life in Australia to be provincial, much like my British childhood.  Yet provincial life can often lead to a feeling of disconnection from the rest of the world, and its problems.

In Reviews of History, there is an interesting overview of the grocery business in provincial England between 1650 and 1830, particularly in relation to sugar and spices.  There is also an interesting review there on a book about spices and the medieval imagination.

Are you interested in food history?  I have written a few things on the subject on Ancestors Within, and in my other blogs.  After all, we are not only what we eat but must also consider how our genetics could be associated in some way with the diet of our (recent) ancestors.






How often did your ancestors experience hunger, malnutrition or an upset stomach?

When and where did your ancestors suffer from waterborne diseases, food-related illnesses and other digestive complaints?

How did your ancestors preserve food and prevent the spread of diseases?

What, for that matter, did your ancestors usually eat?

What did your ancestors eat on special occasions?

How were your ancestors involved in growing food, manufacturing food items, distributing food and retail sales of food?

What did my Flemish ancestors eat?

How many food blogs relate to reminiscences of childhood and family history explorations?

How many family history blogs and online reminiscences relate to food history in some way?








In middle age, my grandmother worked in catering.  She even helped to supervise the catering at large events.  She always loved preparing food for her grandchildren, too.

Who grew most of the food we ate?

Where did the ingredients originate?

At the end of my first year of family history blogging, I received a Kreativ Blogger Award from Michelina Hall in Florida.  I rarely look at other blogs because much of the information there is quite personal and not particularly relevant to my own research.  Like my husband, Michelina's family heritage is Italian. Her genealogical interests are commercial as well as personal though she has a reflective approach to her writing, as I hope I do.

I still find it strange, and somewhat uncomfortable, to know that other people outside my family sometimes read Ancestors Within.  I am not a commercial blogger.  Nor am I an academic one.  I write purely as a personal interest, in the hope that what I write may help other people to experience life more deeply and enjoyable than they had earlier thought possible.








For me, neat and tidy family history research is an impossibility.  History is always messy.  We can make pretty pictures of it to share with each other but the reality cannot be ignored.  The reality lives within us, just as it lived within our ancestors.

How do you distinguish between my heritage, your heritage and our heritage?

Who is the "we" you usually place within your definition of "our"?

Culture and nature are mixed together in family history, and in our individual lives, like spices in a cake or curry.  The digital world, much like the media of the 1980s, mixes the private and the public in unpredictable ways.

The ruthlessness associated with greedy acquisitions of wealth has often been noted by thoughtful historians.  What is your understanding of 1980s Britain?  What is your understanding of Britain's financial sector today?

How does world trade today relate to the Opium Wars of the 1800s?

How has the spice trade related to the opium trade, and to the drug trade more generally?

Were any of your ancestors addicted to something?

As far as I know, no-one in my family has had any addictions.  My grandparents experienced food rationing during the Second World War.  That taught them to appreciate good food when it was available, and to appreciate peace.







Early last year, I wrote about my paternal grandmother's experiences of Finsbury Park and London family history.  In May last year, I wrote about an orphan in the family.  Earlier this year, I wrote about ancestors and a glass of water.  I also wrote about breakfast with forebears.

More recently, I wrote about images of the world through migration.  My grandmother's Uncle Louis had been a child migrant from Belgium.

Back in July 2009, I wrote about working families and genealogical studies.  If you are just starting out with family history research, I have written about that, too.

Uncle Louis was a half-brother to my great grandfather.  The more I discover about my family history, the more complicated it seems to become!

I have written about so many cousins and Molenbeek and me and success after many years.  According to the blogger statistics, more than 2,000 people have looked at each of those blog posts.  How many of those persons might have ancestors in common with my own?








In July 2010, I wrote about the importance of being earnest with Alice in Wonderland.  In October of that year, I wrote about family experiences at the seaside.

I have not really written much about the East India Docks.  There is plenty of information about them online.  But was there a spice warehouse called Van den Berg or Vandenberg there?

Do you know much about the history of the East India Docks and its warehouses?  The current names of streets there suggest it was the place where my grandmother worked.

Commercial Road is now also known as the A13.  Looking at recent maps and old maps is often useful when researching family history.  I wrote quite an extensive blog post in December 2010 on the subject of a genealogical look around.

Do you write about your family history?  In February 2011, I wrote in memory of generations past.  We rarely know when we will join those generations to become only memories.

Over the generations, our ancestors mainly become historical figures as we learn about our genealogical journey.  Your ancestors may never have been notable in their lifetimes.  They may never even have been notorious.   Most of us only have ordinary ancestors who, as individuals, made very little difference over the course of history for good or ill.








In March this year, I wrote about the smell of ancestral worlds.  Now I have been writing about family spice mixtures.

There are many different spice mixtures in the world, just as there are many different sorts of families and experiences of family life.  There are many condiments and seasonings used in meals.  Perhaps they make family life more palatable for many people.

My family history connects the Port of London with the Port of Antwerp, through my Belgian ancestry.  Many spices entered the European market through Antwerp during the Renaissance.  It was, at that time, one of the most important commercial capitals in the world.

With Brexit looming over Britain's future, who knows what will happen?  World trade will inevitably continue to influence and possibly undermine national sovereignty - and national democracy - in various parts of the world.

During this first half of the 21st century, like the first half of the 20th century, there will continue to be considerable economic chasms between the people existing in relative poverty and those with access to significant wealth.  The many people living in the chasms will continue to experience a mixture of hope and fear.  They will struggle daily towards the promise of prosperity while scrambling away from dire poverty on various steep and slippery slopes..

My grandmother, in her youth, helped with the distribution of spices in Britain.  Her work took her, little by little, further away from poverty, just as mine did.  Our struggles towards prosperity never made us rich but we could always put good food on the table.  Many of those meals and snacks have been enlivened by spices.