Fiona Finch joined a Family History Day at the Lancashire Archives in Preston ... and learned far more than she had ever expected about her own and the county’s history.
If only I had asked the important questions.
I remember prompting my grandma to tell me about the 1920s. Had she been a flapper girl? “Gracious no,” she said. “We’d never even heard of them.”
But I never asked her where exactly she came from, where she was born or what her grandparents were like.
Like any child or teenager my life was grounded in the present, not the past.
My grandmother, a former nurse, died in 1975.
Today I know some of the answers to those unasked questions - thanks to a visit to one of the Family History Days held monthly at the Lancashire Archives in Preston.
Within minutes volunteers had put me on track to finding out much more about my family with my great, great grandfather on my mother’s side traced back to his baptism in September 1823 at St Francis Hill Chapel, Goosnargh.
It was a surprise because I had not realised my family had such longer standing links with the Preston area ... and I had only started with a name and date of birth.
On the day of my visit Avis Boardman from Penwortham told how she came to the archives after deciding it was time to give her grandfather Henry Sutton the credit she knew he deserved. She said: ”I went to a talk on Lancashire chickens, it really didn’t mention my grandfather very much. He was a pioneer of the poultry industry in this county. I said yes, I think it’s time I got to know all my ancestors.”
The Family History Days had, she said, been of great assistance in tracing her family's history.
The Days have three strands - they open with a surgery run by the Preston branch of the Lancashire Family History and Heraldry Society, a specialist talk follows and for those who want to stay on in the afternoon, there is a guide and tour about how to use the Archives.
I joined the afternoon tour and talk given by archivist Kathryn Newman. Soon we were gazing at a handwritten letter sent from London on November 6, 1605, detailing the uproar in London following the Gunpowder Plot. The letter (archive ref. DDF 62/2348/92) was sent by John Sumner, steward for the Farington family, to his master William Farington of Worden Hall.
He reported that fires had been lit round London and one suspect was already rumoured to have been on the rack.
Another archival box revealed an old Book of Hours c. 1500, owned by successive members of the Molyneaux family (archive ref. RCFO 11). An illuminated page contains a picture of the man who commissioned it in a detail in the design.
While the Family History Society volunteers at the Bow Lane archives in Preston are not going to trace your family tree for you, they can give helpful pointers and help members of the public who have reached stumbling blocks in their researches and are uncertain where to go next. Access to some ancestry sites is free at the archives and libraries.
Society volunteer Joan Clayton admits to getting hooked on research after investigating her own family tree: “I’ve never stopped since. It gets under your skin. I’m back to the 1500s on my maternal side and 1600s on my paternal side.”
Branch Chairman Peter Bamford said the surgery sessions are enjoyable because it is possible to help someone in a short period of time.
Jacquie Crosby, Archives Services Manager at Lancashire County Council, believes it’s the wow factor which is the unique thing about the Lancashire Archives: “You never know what you re going to find here.”
She says the Family History Days are “phenomenally successful” adding: “Having the Preston branch of the Lancashire Family History and Heraldry society is brilliant. ”
Each of the archivists must have their favourite finds. For Jacquie it is an ancient map of the Burtonhead estate: “I would say my favourite document is a beautiful map from about 1580. It relates to an area in old Lancashire really - it’s on the way to Warrington and Winwick. It’s not surveyed at all, but it’s set in context because it shows the bridge at Warrington over the Mersey. It shows the churches that were there at the time - little drawings of churches and it has, in the middle, the manor house. “There are fields around it - some were strip fields and there were fields that have got coal mines, identified with black dots. They are open mines. It’s coloured. It’s absolutely beautiful. It’s just delightful and it’s in the Scarisbrick Collection. There are thousands of different collections.”
If you have something which you think may interest the archive Jacquie has some advice: “We tend not to accept individual personal family collections because we feel they should stay with the family. To be of interest the item or papers must tell more about life in Lancashire, or Preston, in particular, in the past.”
If documents are accepted they are stored in a climatically controlled storeroom. The archive boasts nine miles of shelving and Jacquie advises: “We can’t take everything because obviously we don’t have the room.”
Collections range from Preston Guild Rolls, Whittingham Asylum and Horrockses archives to maps, Preston Council’s building plans, The Football League archives, (but not players’ records), and many wills and baptismal records.
Jacquie, who says she has “the best job in Lancashire County Council” sums up the immense value of the Archives: “It’s our history and it’s the people in the past telling their stories down through the ages. It gives us connections.
"We want people to know we’re here, that we’re accessible and they will be welcomed and helped to pursue their research interests.”
* The next Family History Days are on November 2 and December 14 at the Lancashire Archives, Bow Lane, Preston.
* The Lancashire Family History and Heraldry Society website is www.lfhhs.org.uk