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Christmas Past
Wakefield & District Family History Society Well over one hundred people turned up on Saturday 3rd December in high expectations to listen to our guest speaker, Ian Dewhirst. With his inimitable style, his fund of knowledge and hilarious delivery, he soon had the audience entranced and in stitches with his topic on ’ Christmas Past.’ He recounted how much of how we celebrate Christmas originated from ancient Rome. 25th December was when the god Mithra was born but was also the period when the Romans held a festival held in honour of the god Saturn in which feasting and self- indulgence took place. Bell ringing in churches was regarded as a way of warding off the devil and on Christmas Eve at All Saint’s church in Dewsbury a bell is rung for every year since Christ’s birth! Ian reminded us that stories of the origins of Santa Claus, from St Nicholas of Asia Minor, such as filling stockings after climbing down chimneys or his giving away sacks of gold, are fables that help with the joyful spirit of give and take at Christmas. He also reminded us that Christmas, as we now celebrate, it really took off in the Victorian period and was greatly enhanced by the writings of such authors as Charles Dickens. Prince Albert introduced the idea of a decorated Christmas tree from Germany and the first Christmas card was introduced by John Calcott Horsley in 1843 and could be bought for the princely sum of one shilling [ten pence]. The original Santa Claus, St Nicholas, was allegedly a thin man dressed in a green cloak. However, the Americans introduced a somewhat more robust figure dressed in red with white fur trimmings.[ Did you know that the American Santa Claus is characterised by him wearing a separate hat while the British version has him with a hood?] Ian illustrated his talk by referring to reports taken from the local Keighley newspaper in 1879 when it was reported that it was probably better to be in the Workhouse on Christmas day when a sumptuous feast was prepared for the inmates when conditions for many in the outside world was often desperate. Also in 1878 a well known auctioneer in Skipton cleared the sales rooms and financed a feast for all who cared to turn up! Finally we were reminded of some of the games that would be played at Christmas such as Hot Cockles when a person is blind folded and is struck by another party-goer and has to guess who struck him. There was Blind Man’s Buff and then there was the rather dangerous game of Snapdragon when raisins had to be retrieved from a container of burning brandy and popped into the mouth. The winner was rewarded with a gold coin! Ian talked for almost one and a half hours in which the audience hung onto every word and gave him a well deserved and enthusiastically round of applause. There being no meeting in January we next meet on February 4th when David Cockman talks on ‘ A Guide to Holmfirth Blue Plaque Walk.’ Enquiries to Ron Pullan 01924 373310
Searching beyond England - Scotland, Ireland & Commonwealth
Searching beyond England At the meeting held 5th November Allan Stewart Kaye was our guest speaker. He began by admitting that like many family historians, he had become frustrated by coming up against the occasional brick wall. This is when a particular ancestor appears to have disappeared from England. His talk was to encourage researchers to look beyond England to places such as Scotland, Ireland and the Commonwealth. The latter included countries such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Caribbean, India and the USA. He began with a brief history of each and then went onto show which records could be accessed such as census returns, civil registration certificates from a country’s General Record Offices, immigration passenger lists, church records, transportation records and National Archives etc. Allan showed that not all countries had complete census returns or that in some cases such as Ireland only 1901 and 1911 returns are available. Unlike England Ireland doesn’t have a GRO index. Australia and Canada’s records have to be accessed province by province. America had it’s first census in 1790 while Jamaica’s started in 1860. However there are slave reports from 1812 to 1834. Canada has church records going back to 1620 whole America doesn’t have an established church and searches may entail looking into the individual denominational churches. For those interested in India there is a wealth of information that can be researched at the British Library in London or Families in British India Society.{ FIBIS]. In each case the records of the East India Company and British government are available. Our speaker also provided a number of useful websites such as scotlandspeople,, Find My Past,, [ for immigration to USA] and [ for Northern Ireland] etc Over ninety people were present and many will have learned a great deal from an extremely detailed and informative talk. Next meeting is 3rd December when we welcome a very popular speaker, Ian Dewhirst whose topic will be on “ Christmas Past.” Enquiries to Ron Pullan 01924 373310
Research and Information Morning
Wakefield & District Family History On Saturday 1st October the Society held its Research and Information day. The use of laptops, microfiche readers, publications and information help desks were made available and used by a steady stream of visitors. Further help and interest was provided by representatives from West Yorkshire Archive, Local Studies dept. from Balne Lane Library, Ian Laidler and his collection of military medals, Christine Ellis and her collection of historical costumes and accessories and on display samples of mining memorabilia. The next meeting is 5th November when A. Stewart Kaye will talk on “ Searching beyond England - The Commonwealth, Scotland and Ireland.” Venue is Outwood Memorial Hall. Doors open at 9.45am for a 10.30am start. Inquiries to Ron Pullan 01924 373310
A Day in the Life of a Registrar
   On Saturday 3rd September members of the Society were entertained by Sally Clamp as she recalled events from her sixteen years as Superintendent Registrar dealing with the registration of births, marriages and deaths in Wakefield.
   For family historians the registers kept at the office in Northgate are the source of certificates which we all need for our researches, but they also provide a fascinating insight into the changes in society over the years since the introduction of registration in 1837.
   Birth certificates remind us of famous citizens of Wakefield, such as Barbara Hepworth, Squire Waterton and the Pilkingtons of Chevet as well as the ordinary people. One of Sally’s favourite entries relates to the birth of twins in an inn in December 1855, there is no reference to a father and the mother died in childbirth. The children were named Mary and Joseph.
   Marriage ceremonies show perhaps the greatest degree of social change. Nowadays the Registrar has to make many more detailed checks on prospective brides and grooms to prevent someone gaining residence rights illegally by a bogus marriage. The Registrar’s workload has been increased by changes such as; the right to be married in a building other than a church, the introduction of Civil Partnerships, non-statutory ceremonies like non-religious naming, renewal of vows and citizenship, but these have also made the job more interesting. Sally recalled the instance of one citizenship ceremony where the 24 participants were from 19 different countries, a real indication of how the world is getting smaller. She reminded us that details of proposed marriages, other than those to be performed in an Anglican church, have to be posted on the notice board at the Northgate office for 15 days. She recommended this as a source of interesting reading.
   Other, less well-known, functions of a Registrar include the performance of “death-bed” marriages, for which the Registrar is on-call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and marriages in prison. At one ceremony where Sally was officiating one of the proposed witnesses was not allowed in because he could not get past the drug “sniffer dogs”.
   The records of death registrations show a less happy side of a Registrar’s work, events like the death of a husband ten days after his wife was burned to death through standing too close to the fire. There is the case of the 12 year old boy in 1856 who died of a diseased hip joint, his occupation was “Hurrier in a Coal Pit”. The records from the Stanley sub-district include the old lunatic asylum, where the master seems to have waited to get enough deaths to warrant a trip to the register office. In one month in 1853 24 deaths were recorded together.
   In response to questions Sally explained that “not certified” added to a cause of death means that no qualified doctor was able to certify the cause, something which could not happen today. She also confirmed that only very rarely was there a valid response to the question, “Does anyone know any reason why this man and this woman should not be joined in marriage ?”
   Our next meeting, on 1st October, is a research morning where you can search our records and seek advice to help you with your researches. The meeting will start at 9.30 and finish at 1.00 pm.

The Workhouse
Wakefield & District Family History Society Carol Sklinar, our newly elected Chairman, opened proceedings by introducing herself and briefly explained how she had become involved in a number of aspects of work within the Society. Then she introduced our guest speaker Susan Deal whose topic was ‘The Workhouse.’ Through researching her family history and discovering that her great grandmother had been an inmate of such an institution, Susan’s interest was stimulated to find out more about them. Susan reminded us that our image of workhouses today was mainly derived from that of the Victorian age but that they had existed in one form or another for several centuries. The family had usually been the first place that provided help for those who had fallen on hard times. But various religious houses, such as monasteries, had also given succour to the poor or unemployed. Then the local parish became more involved when the dissolution of the monasteries occurred in the 16th century and growing numbers needed help because of growing unemployment due to changes in agriculture such as land enclosures. The Poor Law Act of 1834 was a political move to try and address the above problems and also by those created by changes in industry and increasing urbanisation. Parishes grouped to form a Union Workhouse and Boards of Guardians were set up such as the one on George St in Wakefield which was later superceded by Park Lodge Lane Workhouse. Entrance was gained by first having a medical, then a bath and being supplied with a uniform. Families were separated, most possessions were confiscated, work was allocated eg cleaning duties, cooking child minding for women. Oakum picking, stone breaking and maintenance work on the building was for men. Discipline was strict, Sunday church services were conducted where men and women were separated by a partition and food was a monotonous diet mainly composed of carbohydrates. These harsh conditions were created so that entering a workhouse was not seen as easy option. Improvements occurred slowly over the second half of the century and into the 20th century. Married couples were able to have separate rooms, medical treatment improved with addition of hospitals and asylums that could accommodate those with mental health problems. By the 1930’s and with increasing enlightenment, and pensions, most workhouses had closed down and converted to hospitals or care homes. Family historians can gain access to workhouse records, where they survive, at the CRO. These records are usually in the form of minutes from meetings, medical and punishment records and admission records. Susan Deal closed with the reminder that there will always be some sections of society that will need a mix of government and private help but that it was not always easy to get the balance right. Her talk was extremely detailed and very interesting and many in attendance will have left with much food for thought. The next meeting is 3rd Sept. when Sally Clamp will talk on ‘ A Day in the Life of a Registrar.’ All enquiries to Ron Pullan 01924 373310

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