Thursday, 23 February 2012

Finding Traces of Your Ancestors Lives in Unexpected Places

We are all familiar with the buzz you get from making contact with a distant cousin who just happens to have a wealth of family photographs that they are happy to share. I know I do, and thanks to some very special people I have come to know over the years (June, Angie, Jim), I have looked into the faces of my great-grandparents, some for the very first time.

This past month or so I have investigated different avenues of research into my family history, largely using archive newspapers ( and local history society transcriptions. These websites have proven to be invaluable resources into the lives of my ancestors, from discovering advertisements to Quarter Sessions reports. This past week alone I have found two ancestors from the same family line (uncle & nephew) in newspaper reports, sixty years apart. In 1882 one of my great-grand uncles, then aged thirteen, was charged with stealing fruit from a garden, and later the following year, he was charged for stealing a purse from a six-year-old boy. Subsequently, he was sent to Buxton Reformatory for five years. This news was equally disturbing and surprising, but in the end I had to concede that I have discovered a truly valuable addition to my family story.

Sixty years on, one of his nephews (my maternal grandfather), was in the newspaper for an entirely different reason. In 1943 he was repatriated home to England from Germany, where he had spent three years in a Prisoner of War Camp after being captured in Dunkirk in June 1940. His return home made local news and he even managed to get his mug shot on the front page!

The first paragraph brought unexpected tears to my eyes

Then there is one of my favourite resources for local history: eBay. That's right, I did say eBay. An unexpected source I grant you, but one that I have come to value almost as much as postcard fairs and emails from distant cousins. A few years ago, whilst conducting a google image search for one of my favourite childhood locations there were several links to the eBay website. At first I ignored them all because I didn't believe it would be relevant to my search. Then I relented, and I haven't looked back since. Not only have I found postcards of my own home town in Suffolk but several of those of my ancestors; a variety of towns, villages, and locations in Norfolk, Suffolk, London, Surrey, and Yorkshire.

I found one faded black & white or sepia toned postcard image of an ancestral town or picnic spot or a street, which turned into another find, and yet another and another. Sometimes I win the bid, sometimes I miss out. It has become my one weakness (thank you Dorcas Lane). One postcard that stands out in my memory from last year was an image of Holt Lodge in Norfolk. This building was not particularly relevant to my ancestry but the seller had also uploaded the back of the postcard which had been written on. It was from my 2 x great-grand uncle (in Norfolk) to his nephew (in Hampstead). I missed out on the item, but I did manage to keep a copy.

The back of a Postcard sent by my 2 x great-grand Uncle to his Nephew
Last week I bid on a postcard from Holt. It was a fairly ordinary image (a pond!), quite faded with the heavy-handed postmark stamp creating a nice little crater on the top left corner. I never expected to have it arrive on my doorstep and find it was written to my first cousin, three times removed. My initial findings had me thinking it was written by my 2 x great-grand uncle - the same one as described above - but further investigations and cross-referencing of the handwriting, proved that it was written by an unknown person. Even so, it was definitely addressed to my cousin who was then living in Richmond, county Surrey. Four years after the postcard was sent, she was married and living in Richmond with her widowed husband and step-daughter.

Postcard sent to my distant Cousin in 1904
The moral of this post is, leave no stone unturned. Investigate every possible avenue, and when you think it couldn't be likely, it really could be likely. If you don't ask, you won't find out. I took the chance on my grandfather's newspaper report. I already had several sources of information into his repatriation and I had found a link to a local newspaper report but until I approached the local Record Office, not only did I gain a personal account of his return from my great-grandmother (who had obviously been interviewed for the story) but I also gained a new photograph, albeit grainy.

My Grandfather in the Local Newspaper

And as far as eBay is concerned: it is game of chance. It is pot-luck. Sometimes I have found some treasures, and sometimes I have missed out. Sometimes I have paid pittance and sometimes I have paid exorbitant amounts. What I have discovered and gained from it all though, is absolutely priceless.

This post is dedicated to my Uncle who is currently recovering from a recent hospital stay following an operation and intensive health issues. Get Well Soon M xxx



  1. Wishing a get well to your uncle! What a lovely post. I have just started to really search ebay regularly. I haven't found anything to bid on yet, but I am still searching!

    1. Thank you Steph! That's really kind of you to send well wishes to my uncle xx

  2. Fascinating story.I would never have thought of using the newspaper archive.I think I will give it a go and see what i can find.

    1. Thanks Anne. Yes, do give the newspapers a try, there are some real gems out there just waiting to be discovered xx

  3. This is a great post and I hope your Uncle is well now.

    I've tried Ebay and the British Newspaper Archive but I've not stumbled across anything related to my Research yet, but I keep trying just in case I've missed something. As for Postcards, I've found Oxfam Books & Music quite handy, yes I definitely said Oxfam. The Oxfam Books & Music near me, and others that I've visited, sell old Postcards from all over the World that were either bought and not used or ones posted home. It's pot luck if any will be to or from a relation but at the very least it provides Photographs of various areas/regions that might be of interest to a Family Historian, like Towns, Villages, Cities where an Ancestor once lived.

  4. Great advice to leave no stone unturned! I've used ebay as well to get some FH cards/books but not recently -time to go have another look. Reading Martin's comments I can only wish for the kind of shop near here...ours are very basic.