A personal tribute to one of the many

James Mcphee company BThis time 100 years ago, my great grandfather James Archibald McPhee was unaware it was his last night alive. He was born in Glasgow in 1884 and on 1 August 1917 as part of the Battle of Passchendaele he lost his life, leaving behind a wife and two young daughters.

I obviously never met him but he was often talked about to keep his memory alive. He was a sign writer by trade but was a singer with a beautiful voice and it is thought he used to sing at local events. The battalion had a band called the Cuckoos and it’s quite likely that James would have participated in the much welcome musical distractions.

My great grandmother (yes, Nanny McPhee!) had a regretful experience of their parting, where James tipped her hat in an effort to make her laugh and lighten the mood. She got cross with him, the train pulled out and that was the last she saw of him. It left her a bitter and dour woman until she died in 1963.

I have his ‘dead man’s penny’ which I will always treasure but suspect his medals went to an uncle, John Houston,  who immigrated to Canada and then America.

Last year I took some time out to do some more research on him and using the war diaries online plus an excellent book titled A Short History of the 16th Battalion The Sherwood Foresters by Lieut Colonel R F Triscott OBE plus the trench maps held by the National Archives, I was able to plot his last days leading up to his death in some detail.

So tonight, James, I will raise a glass to one of many who endured unthinkable conditions over months and years in order that we can live our lives the way we do today. All being well, when the glare of publicity is over this year I’m coming to see you at Tyne Cot. May you be resting in peace.

Great when it comes together

As a professional researcher there’s no better feeling than when you have success with a commission and have happy clients!!! 

It was a small project but meant a lot to those involved.

It counteracts all those hours spent tracking down then wading through unindexed records only to find the vital piece of info… isn’t there!!! Then having to ‘justify’ the cost to an unhappy client.

As Forest said…life is like a box of chocolates….

Well, what happened there?

As I write this here in the glorious spring (or is it summer?) sunshine, I realise that all those long winter nights where I planned to dig in and get my research updated have passed me by. I don’t think I am unusual, but this winter has been difficult with a new job, a poorly relative, some private commissions and the general hub bub of day-to-day life. Before I knew it Who Do You Think You Are was almost upon me and I considered carefully whether to attend or not.

I considered what I gained from it last year…it was my first visit, and it was really interesting but I just didn’t capitalise on it. Still on the bookshelf is a bag with all the shiny new books, leaflets, some maps, CDs and magazines that have largely gone unread.

What happened, where did that time go?

So, sunshine or no sunshine, I resolve to get that bag out and go through it to get the maximum benefit. I’ll consider it my summer project! Then, maybe my conscience will let me consider attending again next year!

The more I dig the curioser it gets!

Over the Christmas break have had a little time to go over some of my own family tree. On my father’s side my lovely, belated uncle Ian Wigston had spent many years researching the Wigston line from Kent to Cumberland and then to Ireland before coming to a halt. Because he had done so much and had hit a brick wall with Irish records I had not previously paid much attention to that side of the family but now seemed a good time to have a deeper dig at it.

For some reason my attention was caught by my first cousin twice removed – not even a direct ancestor but his name popped up a couple of times. This was Thomas Wigston, born in 1881 in Fusehill Workhouse in Carlisle, UK. He is listed in the census with his mother, Sarah Ann Wigston aged just 17 and listed as a sewing machine worker.Oh dear! Curiously enough Sarah Ann appears in the census twice – once as an inmate in the workhouse and then also at home with parents William and Isabella Wigston. To me this indicates that maybe she had not been totally shunned by the family and maybe the door was half-open for her to return once she had found a home or disposed of the newborn Thomas…we may never know!

Thomas has proven hard to track down but I need to order some certificates to be sure of his journey. However he does pop up in the 1911 census married to Hannah Jane Wigston (nee Richardson as her father was conveniently staying with them on the night of the census). They had been married a year and had a 1 month old baby boy named William. By now Thomas was aged 30 and a fuelman on the railways in Carlisle.

Curious about what Thomas had been up to before marrying relatively late in life I searched for military records and as luck would have it his WWI records have survived and show that he served previously for 12 years in the Army Service Corps.So that is what he had been up to! Even more curious is that he had listed as a distinguishing mark a tattoo on his arm with a bust of a woman and the name S.I.S.S.I.E. – who was Sissie or was this done as a drunken dare or joke reflecting his nature as judged by his peers?!

Thomas then spent the war like a game of snakes and ladders being promoted and demoted being AWOL on occasions but also being mentioned in despatches.

It’s funny how some people just prick your curiosity and Thomas is one of those. I am lucky to have found the records I have so far but it’s made me greedy for more. Think he will be my personal 2017 genealogy project. As New Year approaches I raise a glass to you my Thomas!



Online Genealogy Dictionaries & Other References — Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter

The Web is fast replacing reference books. References to almost any information can be found online quickly. In fact, it is often faster to look up information online than to look in a book already on your bookshelf. Of course, an online lookup is also much cheaper than purchasing a reference book. Here are some […]

via Online Genealogy Dictionaries & Other References — Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter

Christmas is almost upon us!


With most of us scratching our heads about what to buy our nearest and dearest I thought I would contribute some ideas for gifts for genealogists.

It doesn’t need to be an expensive item that may go unused, such as a subscription to Ancestry or FindMyPast, although for many this will be very welcome. Other gifts that genealogists would value include:

  • Page magnifier – for trying to decipher that faded, scrawly handwriting on original documents.
  • Subscription to a family history society – many genealogists research various parts of the country and an extra subscription would be a boon, but I suggest you check what they have already. They usually get regular journasl, access to other members’ records, specialist publications relevant to the area and access to a research room (please check as they do vary).
  • Your time – write down all the snippets that are in your head and present them to the family researcher. They will value this, especially if you can also track down any memorabilia too. Could be just what they are looking for to break down those brick walls.
  • Nice notebook for keeping all those odd notes and research – I find an A4 Moleskin is the ultimate but a smaller or cheaper option would be appreciated.
  • Certificate folder or lever arch file – these can be archive quality from one of the many online stores or an ordinary file from a local stationers.
  • Pencils – these have to be used in archives and record offices, rather than pens. Why not buy a ‘nice’ propelling version but make sure it does not have a built-in rubber as these are sometimes not allowed.
  • Finally, check out my online store http://genrooters.co.uk/ for vouchers or packages to suit a range of budgets.

If you have any queries, please do not hesitate to contact me and I will do my best to help.


Census substitutes in the UK


In past blogs and press articles I have made no secret of the fact that I love using census records to create a really firm foundation for further research. It is much easier to be confident you have the right family group rather than relying solely on individual civil or parish records.

However, they don’t help with research on what happened in the intervening 10 year gap and are not particularly useful before 1841. However, there are some other records that can help and outlined here is a brief overview of what else to investigate.For more details, various guides, websites and publications as to what has survived and where the records are located can act as a short cut when tracking the relevant records down.

Lay subsidies

These taxation records broadly cover 12th to the 17th centuries.Most of any surviving records are held by TNA (The National Archives) in Kew, London. Local County Record Offices might be worth a visit if you cannot find them in TNA.

Poll tax

This was first introduced in 1377 and the most useful periods are 1377-1381 and then 1641-1697. Once again the surviving records are held by the TNA.

Tudor and Stuart musters

These assessments of able-bodied men who were available for battle, if and when required. The earliest records date from 1522 and end in about 1640, although a handful were taken after this date. The records are held by TNA, local County Record Offices and the British Library.

The Solemn League and Covenant returns

This covers English and Scottish citizens dating between 1638-1648 with the records being available as part of the parish records held by local County Record Offices.

Protestation Oath returns

This dates from 1641 and was taken by all those who were rejecting the Catholic faith and can often be found as part of the parish records or held within the parliamentary archives, who do have an online database called Portcullis.

Hearth tax

This is a simple but easily accessible set of records. It started in 1660 until 1689. They are held as part of the subsidy rolls held by TNA, some may be found in the Quarter Sessions records held by the local County Record Office or there is an online database at www.hearthtax.org.uk

Land tax

This covers the period 1693-1963 but the survival and location of the records varies greatly. The most likely places to look are in Quarter Session records at local County Record Offices and at TNA. Alternatively Ancestry.co.uk offer land tax records for various areas in London from the years 1692 through 1932.

Militia lists

These are particularly useful in the absence of other census-type returns in the 18th and 19th century. The survival rate for these records is generally good and can be found as part of the Quarter Session records at the local County Record Offices.

www.thegenealogist.co.uk holds some records which are available online. For service records of officers and those of other ranks these can be found at TNA and www.findmypast.co.uk.

As I stated at the outset, this is not a full and detailed list but will hopefully help those struggling to find other records in order to work their way back on their research.







The changing face of St Margaret’s in Leicester

I recently came across some research I did on my Wigstons in Leicestershire and thought it might be worth sharing.

‘My’ Wigston was Thomas aged 47, living in Luke Street to the East of St Margaret’s church, as listed in the 1871 census.

First of all I tracked down a contemporary map as close to the 1871 as I could and in the Leicestershire County Record office I found a clear street map of 1874. This showed the location as being on the outskirts of Leicester. I then looked on Google maps to see a comparison but sadly Luke Street had not survived. However by looking at the Google satellite view I could see the area had been modernised and the edge of a building was aligned with what would have been Luke Street. By then looking at Google Street View I could see the area was a real mixture of Victorian and 1930s run down derelict buildings alongside modern buildings.

I then decided to visit the area and it became clear that the new building that had replaced Thomas’ Luke Street was a univeristy building. The blue arrow denotes where Luke Street would have run before being replaced by this buidling.


My next step was to visit the Leicestershire Record Office and by tracking Luke Street through the electoral roll I determined that Luke Street disappeared between 1967 and 1984.

My next port of call was online research and it became apparent that between 1835 and 1860 Thomas’ St Margarets became built up and one of the area’s most important factories, Corah’s St Margaret’s works, was built and grew over time. The initial plans devised a scheme for the construction of premises on an immense scale: the main warehouses was 160 feet long and 50 feet wide. The rear was an even larger building, the factory, the dimensions of which were 294 by 80 feet. The 140-foot chimney was attached to the factory. The works were driven by a large steam powered beam engine, which was started for the first time on 13 July 1865.

By 1866, over one thousand people were working at St Margaret’s, and the buildings had been extended twice. Our Thomas Wigston by the 1901 census had moved but stayed within the parish. One can only think he moved because of the approaching industrialised development or was forced out to make room for progress.

Originally, a factory yard stretched north as far as the canal but by 1941 there had been no less than nineteen extensions to the original building taking up all available land.

The economic hardships of the years following the 1st World War took their toll on the Corah operation.  After years of consistent expansion, the company faced their first experience of decline. By 1936, various branch operations in Birmingham, Newcastle, Cardiff, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and London had closed, production being centred on Leicestershire.  Profit margins were reduced and overheads cut.  The firm was managing to survive, but their saviour came in the form of Marks and Spencer.

Into the 1960s, Corah’s employed over 6,000 workers, making it one of the largest factories in the city. But the UK hosiery industry fell into severe difficulties following the recessions of the 1970s and 1980s. It may have been that Luke Street may have been swallowed up by further development in it’s hey day or was sold off to help ride the hard times of the recession. Corah’s and its competitors were faced with changing tastes and foreign competition. It had to borrow to reinvest at the same time as having to keep prices low – and, in the inflationary 1970s – pay their workers more.

Corah lost its last link with the founding family in 1989 and in the same year it was sold to Australian corporate raider Charterhall and was broken up shortly afterwards after Charterhall crashed to a huge loss. By the 1990s the factory had closed.

Armed with this interesting information, I then wanted to see how the development of this factory so close to Luke Street would have had on the area. By googling and digging a bit deeper it appears that there is quite a lot of information about Corah’s available including maps and plans. The Univeristy of Leicester site was useful showing a 1939 diagram of the factory with what would have had Luke Street in the bottom left hand corner. The site also has a 1959 staff handbook showing the inside plan of the factory.


Welcome to Corahs’, Employees’ Handbook, 1959
Created by
N . Corah & Sons Ltd

It does not show Luke Street so my thoughts are that by this time it had been reduced to a minor cut through between the car park and the cycle park.

By checking on Ordnance Survey street level maps for 1953 and 1973, along with the earlier electoral roll details, I deduced that Luke Street was demolished between 1967 and 1973.

Sadly, today the area is derelict and run down but it clearly demonstrates the ebb and flow of urbanisation which has always happened and always will.

Christmas is here, already!

With just 13 weeks to until Christmas I hope my followers will bear with me on this specific post. In genealogy terms 13 weeks is not long for tracking down certificates, ordering them, pouring over them and extracting the information then going on to follow-up the next clue.

Every year there are disappointed people who want to give a genealogy gift for Christmas but are then disappointed that it cannot be produced instantly and completely. After all…that’s how it works on WDYTYA and Long Lost Families, surely?!

If you are thinking of buying a gift then my advice is to check out my online store now…not later, to avoid disappointment. http://genrooters.co.uk/.

If you have any queries, please do not hesitate to contact me.

There we go…plug over, back to business as usual.


Preparation for a pilgrimage

For some time I have felt the need to visit Ypres to pay tribute to my Great Grandfather, James Archibald McPhee, who lost his life there in 1917. However in order to get the most out of this trip I needed to carry out some preparatory research.

Some time ago I had visit the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website to find out details of where he is commemorated. This is a free to use site and can provide a wealth of information. Below is the entry for James:


I had also visited his regimental museum at Nottingham Castle but hadn’t really gleaned much more.

By using Ancestry I recently searched for more information on James and was amazed to find his military papers online. Sadly, many WWI records did not survive WWII but his did and they gave me lots of information such as his physical build, when he signed up, where he spent his service and his date of death (amongst a host of other information). Curiously, his date of death on a number of records was listed as 31 July-3 August 1917. This pricked my curiosity: did he go AWOL, was it so chaotic that they didn’t know who was alive or dead at any time, was it a drawn-out death or was the record keeping very ‘informal’? Pinning down the exact date was important as that affected exactly where he died.

I then looked on Ancestry for the war diaries and again hit lucky as they were now online. They made really interesting reading as I had not previously grasped the concept that the battalions moved around so much, with a rotation scheme providing rest, reserve operations and front line action. By narrowing down the dates in the diary I could place the likely location of James’ death to Kitchener’s Wood, a dugout between Canopus trench and Venhuelle farm, California Drive or St Julien.

During my research I also tracked down a book written by an officer from the same battalion giving a more detailed and personal account of life during action. The book is “A Short History Of The 16th Battalion The Sherwood Foresters (Chatsworth Rifles)” by R F Truscott. It is out of print now but a kind person responded to a post I made and let me have the relevant entries. This highlighted the unimaginably poor conditions that they were operating within and the sheer misery endured by all. It seems likely from this account that James either died along with 29 other ranks at battalion headquarters in a disused German gun-pit at VanHuelle farm on 2nd August or on the 3rd August when A and C company suffered heavy losses in Canteen trench or the area between Vanhuelle farm, Canteen trench and Canopus trench.

My next stop was to visit the National Archives in Kew who had a range of trench maps at various dates through the campaign. It was very eery to handle the actual maps who, if they could have talked, would tell a tale of misery, hardship, terror, despair and grit of those who had used the maps. The maps were in good order but the ragged edges, stains and various thumb tack marks could only hint at their history.

Fortunately I have tracked down a map for August 1917 showing the area that James died in which I can transpose to a modern map so I now know where my pilgrimage should take me.


I am planning a visit and it is likely I will hire a local WWI guide rather than using a standard coach trip as it is important to me to walk where he walked as well as visiting his official grave at Tyne Cot.

What I have learnt from this is to check back at Ancestry frequently as this information was not available last time I searched and to not overlook googling terms – that is how I found Truscott’s amazing book detailing the battalion’s activity.