How To Improve Your Ancestry Research

I coined the expression Imaginative Ancestry a couple of years ago as I sought to understand better the lives of my ancestors and the environment in which they lived. It means creating a picture in your mind’s eye of the conditions in which your ancestors, or a particular group of them, lived. But you won’t create this picture by looking at birth certificates, probate documents, old photographs, newspaper clippings; you need to get in amongst the historical context of the decade, century, era ….. take a glimpse at the politics of the day, the economic circumstances, the cultural factors and technological changes occurring. And if you want a tool or structural framework to help …….. try this, something I used for many years as an organisational psychologist before retirement and only recently recognising its value in my family history research. It’s how I make sense of the wealth of information in my two main reference books, English Social History by G M Trevelyan, and History of Britain & Ireland (DK). Each time I find a fact, a paragraph, an incident I categorise it and note it under one of these four headings, Political, Economic, Socio-Cultural, Technological, and as I read more I find myself searching deeper for items that can be classified in this way. Here’s the general framework:

  1. Political– How government policies, regulations and laws affect the population generally or specific segments such as occupations, locations, businesses or guilds. Examples: The Corn Laws, The Poor Law, Enclosure, Trade Regulation, Working Hours.
  2. Economic– A consideration of the economic issues and how they impact socially on the population. This would include factors like inflation, interest rates, economic growth, the unemployment rate, work opportunities, wages, cost of staples and goods, Labour skills/availability. Examples: Price of corn, market value of tin, geographical agriculture, overseas market volatility.
  3. Socio-Cultural– A consideration of “institution and environment” factors within a population or social grouping that, although possibly caused by politics, affect the day to day culture and lifestyle of people. Examples: Religion, Education, Rural/Town, Class Structure, Birth/Death rates, hygiene and health, medicine, social attitudes and taboos,
  4. Technological– The technological changes occurring in the ancestral period being considered and the impact they would have on the population generally or your ancestors specifically. Examples: Spinning Jenny, Newcomen Steam Engine.

Now lets apply these general guidelines about PEST to the period 1740 to 1890 in England searching my two reference books. I merely copy down the things I find or read about into a large notebook with the page divided into four sections. Here’s what I mostly found:

  • Political Factors from the Period

    Tolpuddle Martyrs sentenced

    • 1793 Royal Charter granted to Board of Agriculture to promote the best and most modern farming methods.
    • 1815 Corn Laws introduced fixing the minimum price below which grain could NOT be imported. This was a tariff protecting British agriculture.
    • 1819 Peterloo Massacre killing 15 protesters, demanding a reform to the electoral system, and injuring 100s more in Manchester.
    • 1832 The Great Reform Act amending the electoral system.
    • 1834 Tolpuddle Martyrs tried for starting a trade union.
    • 1838 Richard Cobden and John Bright form The Anti Corn Law League.
    • 1838 People’s Charter published seeking “representation for all”.
    • 1842 Chartist Petition, the first mass movement driven by the working class seeking votes for non land owners, rejected by parliament.
    • 1846 Corn Laws repealed.
    • 1847 Lord Shaftesbury Factory Act limits the length of day worked by women and children to be 10 hours maximum.
    • 1893 The Independent Labour Party launched.
  • Economic Factors from the Period

    Anti Corn Law Protests

    • An increase in “banking” and money exchange leading to the creation of banks in almost every town.
    • 1764 Sugar Tax created
    • 1764 Unemployment rises due to invention of Spinning Jenny enabling one person to operate multiple spools.
    • 1776 Adam Smith publishes A Wealth of Nations
    • 1798 First ever income tax introduced by William Pitt the Younger at 0.8%.
    • 1815 Corn Laws keeps the cost of bread high.
  • Socio-Cultural Factors from the Period

    John Wesley brings Methodism to Cornwall

    • The rise of non-conformist religions such as Wesleyan Methodism
    • Changes in skills and working practices resulting from the Agricultural Revolution
    • Impetus to the creation of trade unions resulting from the London Docks Strike
    • Power still held by the “landed gentry”
    • The establishment of “a free press” leading to the creation of many newspapers.
    • The rise of satire used by writers such as Pope, Swift, Defoe, Cobbett and Dickens to question the order of things and exposing hypocrisy, folly, corruption.
    • Significant decrease in mortality rate compared to relatively static birth rate.
    • Increase number of schools and therefore opportunities for basic education.
    • A general social atmosphere of peace and prosperity influenced by a linking of Protestantism and Patriotism plus the later victory at Waterloo.
  • Technological Factors from the Period.

    New water pumping engines extend life of mines

    • John Harrison’s solving of the measurement of longitude at the beginning of the period.
    • A complete revolution in agriculture preceding the Industrial Revolution and including increasing enclosure, improved methods of planting, sowing, harvesting, geographical specialisation and breeding of animals for specific factors such as meat or wool from sheep.
    • The engines of Newcomen, then Watt and then Trevithick more efficient at pumping water from mines enabling greater depth and safety.
    • James Hargreaves Spinning Jenny enables one person to operate multiple spools.
    • Richard Arkwright’s Spinning Frame creates stronger yarns leading to mass production of textiles.

Some of these items I consider MOST likely to have DIRECTLY affected my ancestors living in Cornwall 1740-1899. For example the Corn Laws and the increasing Enclosure affected the whole populace, but the Newcomen engines designed to pump water from mines then improved by Watt and then Trevithick will have greatly expanded the life and safety of the mines themselves, either preserving or increasing employment.

So, here’s a personal summary of the period 1740-1899 incorporating the most likely factors from PEST:

This was the time of William Cobbett, farmer, journalist and member of parliament who travelled around the country observing and writing about political corruption and the exploitation of agricultural workers and the population generally via The Corn Laws for example. His book Rural Rides is still in print to this day. Across the second half of the 18th century and all of the 19th, the people of Cornwall experienced many upheavals and changes written about by Cobbett, some changing their lives for the better, some causing hardship and distress. The employment situation ebbed and flowed as first the value of tin dropped dramatically to be followed by a further problem of deeper mines being needed to find the ore which was accompanied by excessive flooding causing collapse. But the development of better water extraction “engines” improved safety and reduced costs which led to many mines staying open which had previously been in danger of closing. However by the 1880s the situation was worsening again and mines inevitably closed; migration away from Cornwall increased. The Corn Laws had caused the price of bread to rise dramatically for almost 30 years and it was a great relief to working families when the Corn Law was finally repealed in 1846. Around the same time women and children were prevented from working more than 10 hours per day, a blessing for some who were forced to work longer by oppressive businessmen, but a curse for others who needed to work longer hours to feed their families. Agricultural workers were pulled from pillar to post as land owners changed sowing, planting and breeding methods and schedules across the whole County.Despite many of these things the constant shining light was a firm belief in family, queen and country, reinforced by the new non-conformist religious approach of Methodism. The founder, John Wesley, had travelled to Cornwall on horseback many times and his preaching in a simple manner in the outdoors appealed to these hard working people. Gwennap Pit was a popular venue as he stood and preached to thousands about prison reform, the evils of slavery and many other subjects people could identify with. It was no wonder that the building of Methodist chapels occurred across the county.In 1840 my 3x Great Grandfather, William Waters and his wife Mary, moved from Goonvrea near St Agnes on the coast of West Cornwall to Chacewater as mines closed. By 1851 his son Joseph was married to Jecoliah and they had moved further east to St Blazey near St Austell where my Great Grandfather, another William, was born. My Grandfather, also a William Waters, was born in St Blazey in 1872 as his father continued to work in the tin mines around the village. But in 1880 the writing was on the proverbial wall for William senior and his wife Elizabeth as workers were laid off with many migrating to America, especially to Wisconsin who welcomed these highly experienced and skilled miners into their various mines. But this was a step too far for William and Elizabeth, so they chose the tiny village of Haverigg in Cumbria, the site of the richest iron ore mine in the world at that time. William junior grew up in this village, as did my mother Marian, as did I, steeped in the mining and smelting of Cumbrian iron rather than Cornish tin. And if you want to continue that part of the story ….. click the link, it’s no longer imaginative ….. Because I Was There!

Categories: Ancestry, Imaginative Ancestry, Lucky Dip

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3 replies

  1. Thank you for the PEST approach, Dr. B. What a great way to breathe life into a genealogy chart.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve always distinguished between “geneology” and “family history.” The former produces the “skeleton” — documents recording names, dates, places. The latter produces the “body” and, as you so rightly point out, requires ferreting out information from sometimes the unlikeliest of places. That’s why I love archives — you never know what juicy tidbit lurks there.


    Liked by 2 people


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