31 July 2009

Family History and the Census

When I’m beavering away at reading Census returns as part of my researches into family history, I often find myself wondering about the event as it actually happened, as well as occasionally puzzling over what was recorded. Were my relatives co-operative or (as I suspect in at least some cases) a bit bolshie about officialdom poking its nose in?

It can’t always have been easy for the enumerators or the enumerated. There were surely many conversations conducted through closed doors, or on the doorstep in inhospitable weather, and/ or with rising irritation on both sides. Even something as simple as having a head cold, or having some teeth missing may have had a bearing on what was heard and recorded. Either or both parties may have been tired, hard of hearing, had an accent the other found difficult to understand, or simply misunderstood the question asked or the answer given. William Meades the stone mason always gives his place of birth as Oxford/ City of Oxford until 1901 when it suddenly becomes Chipping Norton (which is probably correct). Admittedly not that far away, but a sufficiently different response to be surprising. I’m sure that sometimes the question about birthplace was asked or understood to be not ‘where were you born?’ but ‘where are you from?’ – potentially rather different, especially if you’d moved area.

If you add to the complications the larger households ( often including step relatives, in-laws, extended family, and lodgers/ visitors) and the fact that the 19th century respondents were not at all accustomed, as we are, to having to give name, place and date of birth on a regular basis, then it’s no wonder that mistakes were made. William Meades had at least twelve children by two wives (the first of whom died at 32) and lived in at least three places, Oxford, West Ham and Lowestoft, so I’m not entirely surprised that the odd inconsistency creeps in. In an age when personal possession of certificates was unusual you would also be dependent on other people to tell you your correct birth information – and if one or both parents were dead, that simply might not be possible. As I doubt many people bothered to keep a record of things like children’s date and place of birth (or even full names), that’s even more room for variation. I don’t, incidentally, agree that most ordinary people were absolutely illiterate before about 1870, as is often confidently stated. Signing a mark rather than a name when a birth, marriage or death is registered is sometimes cited, but all this demonstrates is that the vicars and registrars at least sometimes made a tactful assumption – and you probably wouldn’t question their authority. Many people knew enough to write their names and read a newspaper, at least, though obviously the standard varied enormously.

All this is without the later mistakes made in transcription, of course – understandable in some cases, though not all. Even if you write Jemima Dunnett as something that looks like ‘Gerunia’ (and it does), it’s never going to be likely that her daughter will be called Manuel (Hannah, actually). But some of it is uncommonly hard to decipher: I always remember an editor’s comment, admittedly about earlier church registers reprinted by the Harleian Society: “the chirography and orthography at this period are both infamous” and feel it’s sometimes equally applicable!

26 July 2009

A Rosario by any other name…

…though as it happens there isn’t one among my colleagues - but we do run to a good many of the more unusual names. OK, you’d expect that in an internationally known institution, especially as one section has a deliberate policy of taking interns from other countries, but even when you take out people like Rocio (Spanish), Reino (Dutch), Piera (Italian), Cesar (Peruvian) and Metaxia (Greek); and Ananda, Santina and Shalom have left, you’ve still got a good few. While most of them are just not very often met with (Albertina, Boris, Dominica, Ghislaine, Morna, Rhian, Sorrel) there are some I’ve never come across as first names before (Glenna, Gordana, Jevon, Sonnet).

And in an age which appears to prize such things, I think a few must have been made up: Tawn, for example, although we don’t really have anything to beat some I’ve come across doing family record searches (Candelena, Carkus, Catcheta, Zebulon…). I think first prize for unusualness goes to Gates, though, especially as this is as a female name.

Talking of family history, some unusual forenames from the Lowestoft, sorry, Waveney Cemetery database…

Female: Redalpra, Othelia, Keterah, Aholibamah, Scyllia, Okilinia, Claratina, Happy, Malguala, Bondella, Aloysia Jeanette, Germaine, Azalia, Redelpha

Male: Maldwyn, Admiral, Pompa, Alderman, Raisin Punt, Beziah, Julino, Auger, Rebel, Paris

Some of these are just the result of reading the more obscure bits of the Bible, of course: I have a few on my own family tree, including one Jedidah Chamberlain (born about 1726). She fortunately didn’t appear to have any male relatives called Jedediah – now that would have been confusing. And Pompa is most probably Pompey said with a good Suffolk accent!

I particularly enjoyed (and no, not in a sneery way) Narcissi Lenor (Harvey), Wonderful Smith (who was an RNVR Chief Yeoman of Signals) and Edward Christmas White.

10 July 2009

Dressed up and dressed down

Having cast doubt in an earlier posting on the current British ability to do formal wear really well these days, I’m very cheered by much of the informal clothing I’m seeing around in London this summer. Good colour combinations, comfortably cut (but not scruffy) garments, some imaginative mixes, above all, people actually looking as if they’re enjoying what they’re wearing. I think we’re getting better at this sort of clothing instead, perhaps – and in future commentators will say things like “Oh, yes, that sort of badly put together casual look is typical of 1995–2005, before people learnt to be happier about what they wore”.

Maybe it’s partly because although there are fashionable elements, there isn’t really one distinctively fashionable look any more – you know, more people may actually be wearing what they prefer and what suits them – we can hope so, anyway. Yes, of course there are always some fashion disasters to be seen, but they can be amusing, apart from the fact that if you really want to wear bright orange tights, or your clothes (apparently) inside out, or stick wooden wedges in your shoes (all of which I’ve seen recently) it is your right to do so.

And of course, some fine weather helps, although everybody still seemed to be putting a good face on it on Tuesday, when the heavens opened and all those summery clothes got soaked. I should have known better than to comment to my colleagues as we left work that evening “Oh look, it’s more or less stopped raining…”

01 July 2009

Food and Cookery Notes:

Some favourite foods: avocado, chocolate, potato, chicken – OK, shades of Nigel Slater, but wotthehell, archie, wotthehell…

Hass avocado for choice – the ones with the knobbly dark skins. Richer flavour and texture, easier to peel, not so difficult to ripen, tending to have smaller stones in relation to the amount of fruit. None of the fancy stuff, thanks (if life’s too short to stuff a mushroom, then it’s definitely too short to torture an avocado). Spooned out with mayonnaise for preference, though very good in salads and sandwiches, of course. Mmmmmm…

Dark chocolate rather than milk or white, although I do love frozen Cadbury’s Caramel* bars and my newsagent keeps a consignment of them in the freezer for me! I’m enough of a chocoholic that I’m not that keen on things made with chocolate, either – there is no substitute for eating the real thing, though I have been known to eat chocolate sandwiches. Sachertorte, brownies, or a rich chocolate mousse are about the best of the exceptions; I don’t like chocolate ice-cream, and think chocolate yoghourt is an abomination!
*Caramel is another favourite, come to think of it

The potato is a wondrous thing, God wot. Chips, jacket potatoes, crisps, mashed, roast, steamed…though I do think getting the right variety for the purpose is important.
Marshall’s potato prejudices: floury potatoes for mashed and jacket (though Cyprus new are OK for jacket). I still buy King Edwards for choice, since if they’re sliced thin, cooked and drained, a lazy cook like me can add a bit of butter and milk and just turn a fork round the pan a few times to get mash, and none of all this cafuffle with ricers, mashers, processors etc. Waxy potatoes (Charlotte, Nicola, Carlingford) for everything else.
Potatoes to avoid, in my not-so-humble opinion: Arran Pilot, Nadine, Estima – all totally tasteless, and Estima seem to take forever to cook, too

I prefer chips to french fries (and definitely don’t count the reconstituted ones you get in burger establishments). I don’t eat crisps very often, but it’s usually salt and vinegar when I do – and no, not balsamic vinegar, for heaven’s sake, nor have I ever got my teeth round all this ‘smoked chicken tikka barbecue cocktail flavour’ rubbish. Mashed potatoes are wonderful provided they’re made with the right kind of potatoes and aren’t processed to death, and can always be added to with garlic, cheese etc. Roast potatoes aren’t actually my favourite form, as they are with so many people – I’d always rather eat baked garlic potatoes or even steamed spuds with mint and butter if we’re talking accompaniments to a joint of meat. Oh, and I always prefer to put some potato in a curry, since apart from liking the taste, it means I can use the water from cooking them in making the curry – nice glossy finish.

Chicken – as long as it’s been allowed to lead a normal life, that is, so it has some flavour and texture, as well as sitting rather better with my conscience. As a child I usually requested a birthday meal of cold chicken, with strawberries for ‘afters’, and I still marginally prefer cold chicken to hot. A good chicken curry with lots of turmeric takes a lot of resisting, though, as does chicken cooked in just about any white wine/ mushroom/ butter sauce.

This drool-fest has probably been brought on by a lunch consisting of convenient but not good quality food – some rather uninspired sandwiches bought in a hurry after a meeting that took up most of the middle of the day.