Sunday, 25 August 2013

Poverty and Stormont - 1920s Belfast

I was in Belfast once again last week for another visit to PRONI ( to carry out some client work. As on previous occasions, I was also able to squeeze in a bit of personal research time, and as a part of this I decided to play around a bit more with PRONI's catalogue, the version within the building being very different to that found online via the PRONI website at On this visit I searched for details for a particular branch of my family, and found an amazing set of letters and documents concerning the brother of my two times great grandfather. I'll not post the name, as I don't want to embarrass any potential descendants (a few of whom I have met), but instead I want to flag up the following story from 1920s Belfast, as an example of the treatment of poverty in the city due to unemployment, and to illustrate the kind of detail that can be found if you go looking for it.

The correspondence opened in late 1922, with a letter from my relative's wife to C. H. Blackmore, the Northern Irish Prime Minister James Craig's Private Secretary in Belfast. This was as follows:

Dear Sir

I take plivelage of writing to you as I am in very poor state owing to the want of work as my husband is out of work over 2 years and their is 6 children all young and I am just watting to get put out of my house owing to my rent been behind as I owe over 6 pounds in arearres in my book so I would be never so much thankful to you if you could help me in any way as the children is almost nacked for clothing and my beds is in a poor state. I even havent got a ticket for this relief coal. The only work my Husband got was a spell on the specials owing to him being ex service man. It is very hard to serve your king and country and not get a help from any one. I do not like the thoughts ap begging but when you have young children crying for food it would put you nearly astray in the mind. So Sir I hope you will see your way of helping me out of my trubles as I am a fit case for the hospital only I have no friends or anyone that would mind my children. It is deserving case.  

I am your Abdadent servant

Mrs [...]

The Stormont based secretary sent a note to Mary M. McCrea, secretary of the Belfast Council of Social Welfare, to enquire as to the family's circumstances. The following was her reply:

Belfast, Dec. 22nd 1922.

Dear Mr Blackmore,

re [...] and [...]

We have made enquiries in this case and find that [...] commenced work seven weeks ago on the Relief Works and is earning £2.4.11 weekly and out of this they pay 7/4 weekly rent. There are six children the youngest aged 1 1/2 years and they all look very delicate. The house was clean and fairly comfortable but Mrs. [...] stated she had pawned almost everything during the time her husband was idle.

All the reports say they are very decent quiet people who have had a hard time owing to unemployment.
Yours faithfully

Mary M. McCrea

Convinced that the need was genuine, Blackmore sent the following response to my relative:

19th January 1923

Dear Madam, 

The Prime Minister has asked me to forward you the enclosed donation and desires me to say that he trusts your husband will now remain in constant employment. He is very sorry indeed to hear of your sad circumstances and would have sent a larger amount but this is impossible owing to the many demands that are being made upon the purse at the present time.

Yours faithfully,

C. Blackmore

Private Secretary

Another subsequent letter from my relative to Stormont, which does not appear to have survived, was equally successful in obtaining a donation:

24th August, 1924.

Dear Madam,

I am sorry to say that the Prime Minister is away from home. I know that I should be acting in accordance with his desire in sending you the enclosed postal order for 5/-. I return your enclosure.

Yours faithfully,

W. B. Spender

Lieutenant Secretary to the Cabinet

The arrears in rent became such a serious problem for my relative's family that on 1 SEP 1924 an eviction notice was served for him and his family to quit their house on Belfast's Earl Street. It is not known yet if this eviction was carried out, but in early 1925, my three times great uncle's wife again wrote to Stormont:

[Jan 29 1925]

Dear Sir, 

I hope I am not taking advantage in writing you those few lines witch I hope you will eknoladge as I have 4 children down with the flu 3 school children the are school ages and a little boy at home. You will think I am in good cercimstances because my Husband is working but I am not that is why I am writing this little note. It is to ask you to help me a little to try and get the children to school again as I want to try and get them some warm clothing and the money is so small that it is hard to get everything. I had to get a school line and medisin. Would Toady Craig have any clothing that I could cut down for the children as their is 7 children and me and my Husband and only one wadge coming in. My eldest is 15 years old but I cannot find him any work and he is to young for barou. I hope I am not intruding hoping to hear from you at the arliest date.

I am your obedeant serant

Mrs [...]

("Barou" = "broo", Belfast slang for "bureau", the office for claiming unemployment benefits).

The PM's Private Secretary again wrote to Mary McCrea of the Belfast Council of Social Welfare, via a Colonel Spender at Stormont Castle, asking her to provide any information on the applicant, "to whom the Prime Minister has sent a little assistance in the past". This time, McCrea took a much sterner opinion of the applicant:

Belfast, Feb. 9 1925.

Dear Col. Spender

This case has been known to us for some time. We reported about this family to Mr Blackmore in December 1922. At that time {...} was working for the Corporation and earning £2 4.11 weekly. Circumstances are just the same now except that a son who is of working age makes, I understand, a good sum weekly by selling firewood. We made a fresh enquiry on receipt of your letter and we are more satisfied than before that Mrs [...] is a begging letter writer and should not be encouraged as there is no distress in this case. We do not recommend that any help should be given.

Yours faithfully,

Mary McCrea


The following note was then sent to my relative from the PM's Private Secretary:

12th February 1925

Dear Madam,

The Prime Minister has asked me to acknowledge the receipt of your communication of the 30th ultimo and to say that, owing to the numerous calls that are being made upon the purse at the present time, he regrets that he cannot see his way to forwarding you further help. 

Yours faithfully,

Private Secretary

A year later, undeterred from the previous response, my three times great aunt again tried to secure money from Stormont:

[12 FEB 1926]

Dear Sir,

I take the operchunity of writing you those few lines I would not write only we are nearly ready for the union. My husband is still out of work yet he is out over a year and 7 children to support. I want to ask you could you help us in any way. My husband put in for help at the British legin but his applaction was turned down I think it is a shame as I think we are a deserving case as my Husband joinid up when men was wanted and volentared for the front if wanted and also on the specials. It seems in those funds when you are not on actvice service or not getting a pension that you cannot get any help. We get 33 shilling a week out of barou and out of that I pay 14/6 rent 3/- 5 coal and 1/4 ensurance so you can count food after that. People that has only 1 child and 2 can get funds and a man with a family cannot get anything turned down when he applys for anything. I have a boy 16 1/2 years old I get nothing for him as he has not stamps. Hoping you will put our case forward and get the boy a job and also his father or some kind of help as I am attending the Royal Hospital and I am ordered emolsion and I cannot get it as it is 5 shilling a bottle. I wish you would do something and I have a child ill home from school. I got 3 weeks treatment out of the units ex service mens acco[?]ation for my health and I put in a nother form. I got out of Hospital and the turned it down and said my case was a cronic. I have only took ill lately. I do not think my case is cronic as the told me that I needed nurishing food. Please Sir will you look into my case and try and get me some help or work for the boy and his father. I cannot get any clothing for the children. 

I am your obadent servant

Mrs [...]

No reply to this note was included in her file at PRONI, and so it not known how she fared with this application. Nevertheless, the above shows that with a little digging, some extraordinary insight can be gained into an ancestor's story - but for this level of detail you do need to visit an archive!

NB: Before you get to that stage, however, you also need to identify who your ancestors were! My latest book, Tracing Your Irish Family History on the Internet can certainly help you to understand how to do so - a free 13 page preview is available at, and the book itself can be purchased from that site either in print or e-edition, including for Kindle.

Hope it helps!


Monday, 19 August 2013

Horning and poinding - 17th century debt in Scotland

Often in the past our ancestors could find themselves in a spot of financial bother, but if they found themselves in serious debt, they would soon find that the state was very much on the side of creditors. Prior to 1838, if a person failed to pay his or her debts, they could be punished quite harshly with imprisonment and the seizure of assets. The civil process for debt recovery was for the creditor, the person to whom the money was owed, to first demand payment of the outstanding debt through a document called a 'protest', which essentially said “pay up – or else”. If the creditor still had no joy following this, he or she could then appeal to a court for permission to pursue the debt through a process called 'horning'. A 'letter of horning' laid out the full terms of the agreement and the money outstanding, with an instruction by the court for it to be paid up immediately on pain of the debtor being declared a rebel.

The following is an example I recently found in Ayrshire from the late 17th century, of a letter of horning drawn up on 5 AUG 1693 against Matthew Campbell of Waterhaughs. The document was drawn up by the sheriff clerk of Ayr on behalf of a creditor called David Patterson. Matthew had borrowed over £400 from him the previous year via a recorded obligation called a 'bond of corroboration' (a bond was basically an IOU), which had to be paid back by the following Candlemas (2 FEB). He defaulted, and on 11 JUL 1693 he received a demand for the debt to be paid within six days “under pain of rebellion and putting of him to our horn”. He was apprehended and the letter delivered to him, witnessed by John Campbell of Newmylns and John Patterson, David Patterson's son. In response:

 “…he most contemptuously disobeyed the command & charge given to him in manner fords Therefore upon the ffyfth day of August and year of God […] I David Patterson messenger past to the mercat cross of Air head burgh of the sherriffdom yrof and yrat after the crying of three seall oyez open proclaimen & publick overreading of …the letters…and orderly denounced the sd Mr Mathew Campbell there majestie’s Rebel and put him to their Highnes horn by three blasts of ane horn as use is And ordaines all his moveable goods and gear to be escheat and brought to their Majesties use…” 

(Source: NRS CS138/1261 Extract regrat Horning Mr John Cockburne agt Waterhaughs, 1704)

In the same year a separate ‘decreet of horning and poinding’ was also initiated against Matthew in Ayrshire by a woman called Elizabeth Neilson (a 'decreet' was the final judgment of a court). In this case, again after failing to repay a sum of money, not only was he condemned as a debtor, but his estate 'poinded', in other words, all his moveable assets were seized, though not his heritable property. In this case the debt was due to the fact that in 1675 he had offered himself up as a cautioner (pronounced 'kayshoner', meaning 'guarantor' in Scots) for someone else's bond many years before, which had defaulted.

Due to certain circumstances concerning his estate, Matthew went to the Court of Session on 3 JAN 1694 to try to overturn the charge of horning. The Lords considered the case and agreed that Matthew’s liabilities for the period in which he was forfeit could be ‘superseded’ i.e. payment could be postponed. They nevertheless found that : 

“the charge of horning was warrantable for the annuities preceding the forfeiture”. 

(Source: Supplement to the Dictionary of the Decisions of the Court of Session, Volume 4, p.115: 1694, January 3. Matthew Campbell of Waterhaugh against Elizabeth Neilson.)

Within a few years, Matthew was eventually declared bankrupt in Scotland (with the bankruptcy process in Scotland known as 'sequestration'). He died in 1708.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Training my replacement!

Family Tree magazine in the UK has included a free seven generation family tree chart this month, which has turned into a great way to get my youngest son familiar with those in his background!

Jamie's older brother Calum was never one for caring about who was connected to who - Calum's much more a story man, he loves hearing about who got up to what and when, and not so much how they connect! Jamie's very different - he's our wee Vulcan, he has to cross the t's with everything, and to dot the i's. Although I've occasionally told him some family stories, the conversation usually gets bogged down in process - how does he connect, who is that, why is she Irish but he's Scottish - questions, questions, questions...! So the new chart has turned out to be a great way to get him going from scratch with his interest in his ancestry, because he wants to join the dots. If it works out, this could be my replacement...!

What we're doing each night is taking two ancestors - a husband and wife - and entering them into the tree chart, with details of their names and their BMD info. Once their names are in, I then tell him a family story about each. We're doing a different couple each night, and will keep going until its filled up in a couple of months time - assuming he keeps interested!

If you want to get the kids involved, there's a few books might help:

  • Family History For Kids, Emma Jolly
  • How 2*t Ur Fmly Hstry, by Jane Starkie
  • Who Am I? The Family Tree Explorer, by Anthony Adolph

Plenty of ideas in all of them to inspire!


Thursday, 8 August 2013

Abolition of marriage by habit and repute

Why was the irregular form of marriage, by habit and repute, not abolished in 1939 in Scotland, when all other forms of irregular marriage were?

Here's an excerpt from the parliamentary debate on the Marriage (Scotland) Bill on March 30th 1939, on its second reading, and the comments of John Colvilee, MP for Midlothian and Peeblesshire Northern:

 “It may happen to be necessary to establish the marriage of two people who have lived together for many years where it may be difficult, if not impossible, to produce evidence of the actual marriage. In such a case it is useful that the law should provide that account should be taken of what may amount to presumptive evidence of marriage. If the doctrine of marriage by habit and repute were abandoned it would be necessary to make some alternative provision on this point, as is done in all other legal systems. The existing doctrine does, however, meet the situation very well, and on balance it is considered that this form of marriage should be retained.”

The full debate is at

Marriage by habit and repute did not disappear in 1939, but was finally abolished in 2006 with the Family Law (Scotland) Act. Marriages deemed to have been contracted before then are still perfectly legal - and believe it or not, in a small number of cases it is in fact still possible to be considered married by habit and repute after 2006.

Just out is my new book from Unlock the Past - Discover Scottish Civil Registration Records. Lots of juicy useful stuff inside, from vaccination registers to overseas GRO records of Scots from the late 18th century and more. ScotlandsPeople may provide access to just some of the records created since 1855 - but what were those records, what was the law involved in their generation, how did it change across time, what were the processes people had to go through to register, what were the penalties for failure to do so, what other records exist dealing with Scottish statutory events post 1855 (and pre-1855 in some cases), how did the state deal with illegitimacy, why were doctors furious about the need to create medical certificates, and much, much more. ScotlandsPeople is a handy tool - but it's only the start of the story...!


Friday, 2 August 2013

Irish pension applications and census fragments

In 1908 the Old Age Pension Act was introduced into the United Kingdom, providing a pension for the first time to those aged over 70 years of age. The key thing for any applicant before being able to make an application was to prove they were the right age. In England and Wales - no problem, civil registration was implemented in 1837. In Scotland, civil registration was implemented in 1855, so a few folk unable to find birth records did need to find proof of age from other sources - it was for this reason that the 1841 and 1851 Scottish censuses were returned from Westminster to Scotland in 1910.

In Ireland, where civil registration of births did not commence until 1864, the censuses and the parish records also became essential tools to help prove age. A tragedy in Irish genealogy is that the censuses were later destroyed, but the information extracted by pension claimants from the documents has survived, and can be extremely useful if consulted. Some information is online - but as I discovered yesterday, the online material, whilst incredibly helpful, is incomplete, and can even be misleading if not understood in context.

Last week, much to my delight, I discovered that an application for my three times great grandfather Arthur Taylor in Belfast existed. I had sourced an index entry for it from the excellent Ireland Genealogy website at, which charges £2 for a look up. (It's important to note that additional material is also available on Ancestry, in two collections called 1841/1851 Census Abstracts, one for Northern Ireland, the other for the Republic, so do check both). The following details were noted for Arthur in the return.

The first two details were a 'Source Film ID' and an 'Ireland Gen ID'. The index was obviously created from a microfilm or fiche, and the entry given a new number by the Ireland Genealogy folk. His name was then given as Arthur TAYLOR, and his parents as Arthur TAYLOR and Bella HALL. His place of residence was the townland of Belfast, in the parish of Shankhill, but nothing was listed beside the field marked 'Barony'. The age of the applicant was noted as 69-70. The following fields then appeared as follows

1841 Census:
1851 Census:  Fd
Observation:   1851 Found Arthur & Ann Taylor. Married 18?9.

The first thing to note here is that an application exists - brilliant, well worth £2 alone to find that out! When an applicant required proof of age, he or she could ask the Public Record Office of Ireland, as it was back then in Dublin, to check the 1841 or 1851 censuses, on the basis of information supplied by the applicant, to see if he or she could be found. My initial interpretation of the above therefore was that Arthur was found in the 1851 census - brilliant again! - and that there was also an Ann Taylor present. I wondered if this might be a sister? The marriage date had a question mark, but did not match what I knew so far, so equally raised a question mark with me. The other deduction I made was that if Arthur was 69-70, he must have made his application in about 1917 or 1918, as I knew he was born in 1848.  However, with question marks on Ann, and the stated date of marriage, I decided to look up the original record in Belfast yesterday on a visit to PRONI. It was then that I discovered that not everything was quite as it seemed...!

The original pension application books for Belfast, and indeed Northern Ireland, are held at PRONI, but not as microfilmed copies, which I had assumed, but the original "O.A.P. 37" schedule forms. The first discovery I made therefore was that the Source Film ID reference on the Ireland Genealogy site apparently had no relevance to PRONI's holdings at all. Instead, I had to look up a series of microfiche indexes held in the archive's self-service area, and once Arthur's name was found, to then note a Volume and Page number. The next thing I apparently needed to know was the barony in which Arthur had lived - the one detail of course not provided in the transcript! But as it was Belfast, one of the archivists suggested ordering up two books using the PRONI catalogue, one for Belfast, the other a sort of mopping up collection of miscellaneous entries from Belfast and Carrickfergus.

Within 15 minutes I had the two books. The first thing I noticed, however, was that the pages in the books were not numbered, only the applications. The detail for Arthur Taylor noted his application was in Volume 3 and Page 324 - but there were only 315 applications in the book. There was also no index in the book, nothing to try to work out how to convert the microfiche reference to what was before me. Within the next 15 minutes, I had had a few conversations with some of the staff, and it was soon realised that the page number reference was actually irrelevant (one of the staff remembered this being discovered some time back). There was only one thing for it then - I started at the front, and slowly worked my way through, one application at a time... In fact, I was extremely lucky. Arthur's application was number 14, out of 315. The information I found, however, was not quite as expected, and much more detailed.

The following initial details were provided for the search:

No. of claim:  14444
Census requested: 1851
Claimant:          Arthur Taylor
Father:             Arthur Taylor
Mother:            Bella Hall

Exact address of the family when census was taken -
Place:              Abbey Street near Peter’s Hill
Townland:       Belfast
Parish:             Shankill
County:           Antrim

Age on claim:  69-70
Observations:  Fam not found

"Fam not found"?!!! Woah, lots going on! Arthur had asked the officer to look up his family in the 1851 census, believing he had been resident at Abbey Street, near Peter's Hill in Belfast. But far from being found, the officer noted that he had not been. So what can be deduced from this? Arthur was three in 1851. He perhaps believed that he had been there when the census was taken, when he hadn't - but it almost certainly suggests that at some point around that time his family was there. The entry further notes that two census volumes had been consulted, numbers 241 and 307 - sadly now non-existent.

But that wasn't the end of it. Arthur had also mentioned that in his childhood at some point he had "lived with grandfather, also Arthur Taylor". Yes!!! As a working theory I was fairly sure that his grandfather was also an Arthur Taylor, but this was now the proof. But grandfather Arthur was also listed for a reason - the officer was advised subsequently to "Try McLelland’s Entry or Lime Street", and then in pencil was added in brackets "Try McLellands Lane or McLellands Entry". Noted beside this was the following - "Found Arthur and Ann Taylor married 1819, no trace of claimant". So my three times great grandfather Arthur Taylor was still missing - but because he was so hard to find, I now know that my five times great grandparents were found, in volume 295, and not only that, but were married in 1819 (the loss of the Irish censuses is all the more tragic in that these questions were asked, unlike their equivalents in Britain). This was also the first time I had found the first name of my five times great grandmother, Ann (assuming this wasn't a second wife!)!

The final attempts to find Arthur suggested looking for him at Cargill Street, Upper Cargills Street, Upper or Carguill Court or Cargill Court. The officer replied - "not identified". This was possibly a desperate last attempt, as the family had indeed spent many years at Upper Cargill Street from the late 1850s on.

Finally, one last detail - the Deputy Keeper of Public Record Office of Ireland made his reply to the pension office on 3 MAY 1918, confirming that the application was indeed in early 1918. My three times great grandfather Arthur Taylor, far from being found, as had been suggested in the online index, in fact never was (at least on this attempt). The entry does note two other application numbers in the margin, 1738 and 3190, in red, but I have no way to check if these were follow up applications, or perhaps entries relating to relatives who later applied and were found, with the detail perhaps cross-referred to Arthur? Who knows?

What the above shows is many things.

a) Some pre-1911 census information has survived - Irish genealogy is not all gloom and doom! You just need to be a bit more creative in establishing options.
b) Online indexes need to be understood as a starting point - but always follow up with consulting the original.
c) Published indexes on microfiche can be equally as bad as anything you will find online!

There were issues with both Ireland Genealogy indexes and the PRONI microfiche - neither provided enough detail to get me to the original entry on their own. At the same time, however, the above research would not have been possible without them, despite the issues raised. And thanks to them, I now know even more about a branch of my family that goes back to the late 1700s in Belfast at least!