Tell it like a story

I started my family history writing group yesterday… and handed out a sheet with some ideas to consider; reading it through now I think I may polish this up a bit… but here is what I gave them – first draft!

HOW ARE YOU GOING TO TELL YOUR FAMILY HISTORY– What is the end ‘product’ going to be – a folder of printed pages to show to the family, or maybe an actual printed book which could have a wider audience  – there are plenty of ‘publishing on demand’ options these days (such as Lulu or Amazon)


  • you need to be realistic in what you can actually do and have an end-product!
  • who is going to be sharing your story, and what materials do you have (photos etc)
  • maybe a memoir/story: the combination of story-telling and personal experiences can focus on a particular episode or time in the life of yourself or a particular ancestor
  • a  recipe book – but write about the people who created the recipes, and the occasions when they were shared!
  • a scrapbook or album  with photos in order and stories, descriptions and family trees
  • be creative!

HOW MUCH AND HOW FAR?  Think about who you want to write about, yourself, a particular person  – or as many people as you know! How much will you writer and how far back will you go? Make it manageable, you can always change it or do it differently, later!

  • a single line of descent – from one person
  • all the descendants of one ancestor – I don’t recommend this!
  • start from your known ancestors – known to you, your grandparents for example

TELL IT LIKE A STORY – It makes it more interesting to read if you have a plot, like a fictional story; think of your ancestors as characters in your family story, what problems and obstacles did they have? A plot gives your story interest and focus and might include:

  • moving from one area to another, country to city or vice-versa
  • from agricultural labourer to town folk
  • moving out of poverty – or maybe losing a fortune!
  • the war

USING WHAT YOU KNOW  – You want your family story to be readable, interesting and moving, you have to be creative – you don’t want a dull list of dates of birth. You may not know the type of house your ‘subject’ lived in, or the sort of work they did as an ‘ag lab’ – but these days you can very easily find out! You can add colour with fashions, art, transport and foods of the time… you can find locations on Google earth or at the library

BEGIN AT THE BEGINNING? OR NOT? – Choose something interesting to write about… you can add the details later or separately !

BRING THEM TO LIFE – You may not have actually met the person you are writing about – maybe no-one in your family remembers them, but you can imagine, be creative, guess at aspects of their character from things they did (remarrying after being widowed, adopting another person’s child, moving from place to place in search of work etc)

INDEX  – Useful to your readers – and to you!

Where did he go?

I’ve shared this before, but I used it yesterday with my creative writing family history group… exploring how you can write imaginatively about a small piece of information:

While researching family history in the 1891 census, I came across John William Coker, a discharged soldier looked after by an officer for the insane in Bethnal Green. He was 26 and  on the transcribed document I was looking at he was named, along with John Grimwood, an old man of 73 from Colchester in Essex. There were two nurses to the insane,  23 year old Harriet Jones from Blackdown, Worcestershire, and Susan Butler who was 69 from  Wexham In Buckinghamshire.  In the same household was young Phoebe Franklin, only 20, also from Essex, and she was the domestic housemaid.
My imagination began to create  a dramatic scenario, a very small private institution with only two patients… But I looked at the complete record, John was one of over 300 patients in Bethnal House, a lunatic asylum on Cambridge Road!!!
John was in the famous Bethnal House, under the kindly supervision of Dr John Kennedy Will and his doctors, nurses and attendants.  Bethnal House was extremely old and  had been an asylum for over one hundred and sixty years when John Coker was a resident there. It was originally called Kirby’s Castle and was on the green from which Bethnal Green gets its name.
What had brought John to the lunatic asylum? Was it his service as a soldier? There is no way of telling. In 1881, a young  John Coker aged 18, was working as a dock labourer in London and  living in what must have been some sort of hostel or tenement, Great Eastern Chambers, Cable Street.  Was this the same John Coker who became a soldier, was discharged and ended up in a mad house? There were 111 men living in Great Eastern Chambers on the night of the census, most were Londoners but many came from Ireland, a few from Scotland three or four from America, and one from Mauritius. What on earth were the conditions like?  I dread to think, no doubt the place was vermin infested, literally lousy. Would they have slept in dormitories or would they have been “on the rope?”
“On the rope,” or a tuppenny hang, was accommodation where men would sleep standing  up leaning over a rope strung across a room. You could fit more people in and there was no need for bedding. Poverty indeed.  However, John and the other residents of Great Eastern Chambers were working, so poor they may be, but probably they could afford a bed.
What happened to John after the 1891 census?  There is John Coker who appears on a later census but it may never be known whether he is the same poor young soldier who was detained in bedlam.


Not as good as cousin Greg’s…

While we are on our family holiday we take it in turn to cook; the first day is always sausages, the last day is always left overs (although this year we also had a superb chicken curry). So, day two was pie, day three was roast, day four was Thai curry, day five lasagna and day six tagine… We don’t have deserts, we have cake! The advantage of cake is that if any of us is going out for the day and need a picnic or snack, cake is just the thing, easy to transport and no container except a plastic bag needed. We had a great and varied selection this year, Battenberg, fruit cake, brownies, ginger cake, flapjack, lemon cake.. and my favourite, halva!

Cousin Greg made the halva, and I have to confess, I think I probably ate more than my fair share! Now, there are many different sorts of halva – the word originally just meant sweet and then came to mean any sweetmeat or dessert. I associate it with Greece, Turkey and the middle east, but when I came to investigate, it’s popular much further afield! as far as Lithuania and Myanmar!

There are, it seems two types, one with a cooked flour base, and one with a nut or seed base, both mixed with something sweet – usually honey, and with flavourings and other tasty ingredients, and can also be made using pulses and vegetables such as pumpkin. it’s usually quite dry and crumbly, but with different ingredients it can be soft and almost squidgy.

Cousin Greg very kindly shared his recipe which is no-cook, tahini-based, honey-added, simple but delicious! So less than a week after we arrived home I had a go at making it…

I decorated it with almonds and pistachios

It was very easy, and it is tasty, and not bad for a first attempt… but not as good as Greg’s!


My family story in ten objects… number 4

Object 4 – a pair of men’s knitted socks

With this object, it is not so much the object itself but a lot of associations knitted round it… my feeble pun is part of the story, not in itself but because we grew up in a happy family, a jolly family, where there was laughter and jokes. We weren’t a family who was noisy, there was not a lot of teasing (teasing had to be gentle and witty, not cruel or unkind) there wasn’t a lot of shouted laughter, we were more smiles, chuckles and giggles… a lot of giggles. The humour came from words and stories, so using a pun is a gentle and silly way of nodding towards my childhood.

My parents married after the war and neither came from affluent families; my father’s parents had a pub, but it was not their own, they held the license, my mother’s parent’s lived in what could be described as genteel poverty – where there was an appearance of middle-class comfortability (is there such a word? If there isn’t maybe there should be!) but my mum’s father always spent more than he earned and was known for ‘borrowing’ ten bob or so (ten shillings)

So as  children we grew up in a house very rich in love, fun, interesting things to do but not necessarily a lot of material things. We lived in a rented flat – but we had a wonderful landlady who lived upstairs, and we had the whole of the nearly one hundred yard long garden, half of which grew fruit and vegetables. My dad tended the garden, my mum sewed and knitted our clothes. My mum did most of the cooking as she was at home, but my dad was an excellent cook too. We went to the excellent local primary school, and we had a week’s holiday at a holiday camp (think ‘Hi-di-Hi’) and occasionally visited friends in Nottingham for a weekend.

So, to the knitted socks. My my mum knitted, jumpers and cardigans, but it wasn’t a passionate hobby, it was a practical job which she enjoyed, and as with everything she did, she was very good at.

I have very clear memories of sitting on a little pouffe (which we called a humpty) holding a skein of wool between my hands, while mum wound it into balls… later, when I was older, I wound the balls as well… I never really got into knitting, although I can knit. In these memories, I’m sitting by the open fire, the curtains closed, on an autumn or winter’s evening, because knitting was mainly to create winter woollies!

Going back to the socks… My dad was a person who needed very little sleep, so late to bed and up with the sun. In the summer he would go out and do the gardening, and make the milkman a cup of tea – they would sit chatting in the kitchen at about five o’clock… but in the winter, he would listen to the radio, catch up on yesterday’s newspaper, and sometimes knit! I don’t know what set him off knitting – I have a feeling someone must have said ‘you can’t do that, men don’t knit‘ (not my mum!) and he would have taken up the challenge. So he knitted socks…

Men knitting… in many communities in the old days, men as well as women knitted, sometimes only men knitted, so it actually isn’t unusual… however it was when my dad did it, unless there were men who did it in private as an almost guilty secret!

I’ve told this story not just as a reminiscence, but as an example of the way we lived our lives, growing and making things, mostly because we couldn’t afford to do anything else, but also for the pleasure of it and because what was made or produced was better than what could be bought – clothes made to measure, meals tailored for fussy eaters (I’m thinking of such things as thickness of gravy, texture of sauces, thick shreds of marmalade for example) We didn’t have a TV, we didn’t have a car, but we had great fun, and a very happy family life, and if no-one but dad wore the socks he knitted… well that was fine too!

The featured image, by the way, is from a wonderful 1946 knitting book I have…

My mum never wore anything like this

… she never ever knitted anything like this, and none of us would have worn it if she did… an elaborate joke maybe!

No, dad did not have knitted underwear…

…nor did mum!

The pattern of the day

I wrote about our family holidays yesterday, an Easter tradition going back more than fifteen years for my four cousins, their families, and me and my family. Up to thirty of us get together for Easter week in a large house and enjoy all sorts of activities, delicious meals, and most of all each other’s company.

It’s very strange coming home afterwards to an empty house, with just the two of us in residence, and I notice it most of all when I get up, and go downstairs for breakfast. Easter holiday for me has a very special pattern in the mornings, and very different from my everyday getting up and breakfasting experience.

We live more than two hundred miles from the rest of the family so we don’t see them as often as we would like; so while we are away together, I always get up early to make the most of their company! Despite the often very late nights (usually sitting in the kitchen, chatting about just about everything, often till the early hours of the morning) I get up just after seven and go downstairs, fill the kettles (more than one in the large houses we stay in) empty the dishwasher if it needs doing so, make a cup of tea, and if I’m on my own, sit reading, by the window if I can! However, I’m not usually the first down; Simon either beats me to it or we arrive at the same time, so then we sit chatting, drinking tea, until he begins to cook the sausages.

Simon cooking sausages.

Sausages, a big thing in our family! We prefer Powters –  made in Newmarket but available in some other areas if you are lucky. We have chipolatas, or chips, on holiday for the first few days until they are all eaten. Gradually other members of the family drift downstairs, usually in night-clothes, and we sit around gossiping, discussing plans for the day and catching up on each others news. If someone has a special trip planned they might come down early, put together a packed lunch and set off – maybe fishing, maybe horse-riding, maybe visiting a particular place…

Endless pots of tea are made, breakfasts eaten, shopping lists made – we have a supermarket delivery on the first day, we bring ingredients for what we intend to cook, and sometimes the pre-made meals themselves (this year we cooked tagine before we went, and put it in the freezer when we arrived to be defrosted for the following Wednesday evening). However, we often need extras, more bread, milk, wine, a particualr fresh ingredient for dinner…

Then suddenly people are rushing – rushing to clear the table, refill the dishwasher, clear up and tidy round, dashing of to get washed and dressed ready for the day ahead, a whirl of activity, then we are piling out of the house and out to enjoy our day, and whatever it may bring.

Today, home from holiday, was a quiet day… just the two of us, a cup of tea, something to eat, then husband doing his art and planning a workshop, and me getting ready to write, once I have hung the washing out to dry… a quiet day with just the two of us…

A remarkable family

The remarkable family I’m talking about is my own! I have just come back from the annual family Easter holiday, not just my husband and children and partners, but my four cousins and their families too! It might seem strange to some people that the five couples and various attachments, children, grandchildren, partners, fiancé/es enjoy not just being with each other, but staying somewhere at least a couple of hours away from home, and staying there for a week, yes a whole week! What is more this is probably the fifteenth year that we have done this!

I have four cousins, all brothers and sisters (two of each) and we have been spending Easter together in all different parts of the country for as long as some of the children can remember. This year we were near Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire, in the little village of Whitchurch. We rented a large house and for five of the nights each family cooked one meal, on the first night we had sausages, on the last night we had left-overs and curry. We traditionally always have a Sunday roast with all the trimmings and vegetables, this year it was chicken and pork. We also have, by popular demand, a pie – and this year it was chicken and leek, with suet pastry. The other three dinners were lamb tagine, chicken Thai green curry and lasagna – all delicious! We don’t have puddings as such but we bring cakes – Battenberg, two different fruit cakes,lemon, chocolate brownies, carrot cake muffins, rocky road muffins, ginger, lemon, baklava, halva… and more I can’t remember.

The younger people go off and do their own activities, which this year included a tree top adventure and canoeing, the cousins go off walking, or horse-riding, or visiting the nearby historical monuments… whatever takes our fancy!

We had a most wonderful time, and the best part was being with such amazing people! We haven’t yet booked next year… but who knows where we might be!

Hot cross bun time: me and the buns and the Widow’s son

Easter means many things to many people, in different ways; as well as the important religious significance, more important than Christmas to Christians, it is also associated with a much older welcoming of the spring festival. No-one knows the details of early celebrations, how people marked the turn from winter to spring with summer not far ahead, but there are certain universal symbols, such as eggs. I’m sure eating nice things also featured in these festivals… and what could be nicer than hot cross buns!

Here is what I wrote some time ago about my childhood experiences:

Hot cross buns are one of those things that send thoughts flying back to my earliest childhood. My dad used to get up early and cycle the mile or so to Maskell’s the bakers which was just next to the Portland Arms Hotel where he grew up.Portland Arms, Cambridge

He collected a dozen warm freshly-baked buns and  cycled home where they would be eaten for breakfast on Good Friday; in those days this was the only time of year  that there were hot cross buns in the shops… now they seem to be available all year round, another eroded tradition to mark special times of the year.

Hot cross buns are yeasted dough, enriched with egg and mixed spice and dried fruit, currants give the best flavour. The spice should make the inside of the bun specky and when you break it open there should be a wonderful waft of nutmeg, cinnamon,  clove and allspice. The bun should have a sticky glazed top marked with a cross, either a simple knife cut, or a flour and water paste cross, or using a template when brushing on the glaze.  The cross is obviously a sign of the crucifixion, and the richness of the bun breaks the Lenten fast for breakfast. Hot cross buns should be served hot, and eaten with loads of butter.

As well as enjoying eating them, I’m also interested in their history, and this is something else i wrote:

The tradition of making special or significant patterns or marks on bread or other baked goods is very ancient and goes across all cultures. There was certainly Anglo-Saxon bakers making patterned or marked bread here in England, and through the Middle Ages so it continued. There was a mini-crisis at the time of the Civil war when the Puritans saw such things as Popish… however the hot cross bun survived. Thank goodness!

By the 1700s these buns were becoming more exotic and fancy, with different ingredients and speciality buns, much as they are today. Superstitions began to arise that buns actually baked on Friday could heal all sorts of ills, and if kept would continue to prevent or protect against disease. There was another tradition of nailing a hot cross bun to the kitchen wall… no doubt to ensure good fortune and plenty in the kitchen, but I have forgotten the precise details!

There is a pub in East London called the Widow’s Son; its name arises from an Easter tradition, and again I cannot remember the precise details in terms of dates. There was a widow with a son who became  a sailor; as he left to go on a voyage he told his mother he would be home by Easter and asked r to keep him a hot cross bun. She put aside a bun, but the son didn’t return. This was in the days of sailing ships and no speedy communication, so the following year the mother again put aside a bun,hoping that this year her sailor-boy would return. He must have met his end somewhere because he never came home, but each year a bun was put aside. Eventually the woman died and her lowly home was demolished and a pub put up in its place,which was named… the Widow’s Son. The first Easter in the pub, the landlord remembered the old woman, and put aside a bun, and it became a tradition that was followed each year. Sailors learnt of the pub and visited, bringing the traditional bun, and these buns were placed in a net hanging from the ceiling.

Today if you visit the Widow’s Son, you will be pleased to notice that the custom still continues!