Meeting Summaries

Summaries of many past meetings are available on this website. A handful of examples appear below.

Many more summaries can be read in the Members' Area.

Every current member of Berkshire Family History Society can access the Members' Area. Note that before you can do so, you need first to register on this website — it is very quick and easy to do this.

Hidden History of Reading’s War Graves and Memorials by Liz Tait

Reading branch talk 31st May 2017

Liz's interest in the town's war graves and memorials was kindled during a bus journey into Reading in 1995 from her home near Palmer Park. It was during the return journey that she caught sight of the Great War Memorial at the Wokingham Road Cemetery; it excited her curiosity enough to decide to visit the cemetery and find out more.

            The cemetery was created by an Act of Parliament because the town's church burial grounds were full to capacity; its first burial was in 1843. The Great War Memorial is located in the extension to the non-conformists' section within the oddly shaped plot known as division 72. The Portland stone monument consists of a memorial screen inscribed with the names of the Fallen and, in the foreground, a 'Cross of Sacrifice' mounted on a plinth.

            There are individual headstones adjacent to the memorial and elsewhere in the cemetery. Liz gave short accounts of those buried there, these included: Private William Lewington the earliest burial; he was tragically killed during a training accident at Maidenhead in November 1914. The earliest female burial was Agnes Maud Russell; she was serving as a nurse in Malta treating soldiers evacuated from the Dardanelles campaign when she died in October 1915. Tragically, many of those who were wounded died from infections later.

            At nearby Alfred Sutton School there is a wall mounted memorial to schoolmasters who lost their lives in the Great War. Liz has done much research into the individuals listed on the memorial and has produced an unpublished work on the memorial's history.

            Common sights for local people at Cemetery Junction were the funeral processions of servicemen killed in action. They would enter the cemetery through the gate lodge; their remains transported on horse drawn carriages accompanied by soldiers, the coffins draped in the Union flag. Liz told us that relatives would often request donations from the onlookers to help pay for flowers to be placed on the soldiers' graves.

            In 2001 Liz Tait formed the Reading Remembrance Trust; its objective was to research and publish the names of the men and women who lost their lives in the Great War. Every year since 1998 she has placed a wreath on the memorial at Wokingham Road Cemetery.

By Sean Duggan

Mayhem and murder on the Midland Railway

Newbury Branch meeting Wed 14th June 2017

Speakers: Chris & Judy Rouse

The Midland Railway was the backbone of rail communication in the nineteenth century, from St Pancras to Scotland and branching out eastwards and westwards.

Among its many early incidents and accidents was the case of Lady Zetland’s maid in the mid-nineteenth-century, when the aristocracy had their horse-carriages hoisted onto flatbed railway trucks in order to travel in the privacy to which they were accustomed.

Read more: Mayhem and murder on the Midland Railway

Mayhem and murder on the Midland Railway

Newbury Branch meeting Wed 14th June 2017

Speakers: Chris & Judy Rouse

The Midland Railway was the backbone of rail communication in the nineteenth century, from St Pancras to Scotland and branching out eastwards and westwards.

Among its many early incidents and accidents was the case of Lady Zetland’s maid in the mid-nineteenth-century, when the aristocracy had their horse-carriages hoisted onto flatbed railway trucks in order to travel in the privacy to which they were accustomed.

Read more: Mayhem and murder on the Midland Railway

Riots, randies and women not their wives – the railway navvy: his social and living conditions by Chris and Judy Rouse

Reading branch talk 27th April 2017

Chris and Judy made a return trip to Reading branch to deliver this second part of their presentation on the life of the railway navvy. They started by addressing the common misconception that most railway navvies were Irish. In fact 92% were English, 4% Irish, 3% Scottish and 1% Welsh (the Welsh were primarily tunnellers due to their mining backgrounds). All navvies were outcasts, but the Irish especially so.

Navvies were extremely strong, they carried all their kit with them - pick, shovel, wheelbarrow, food sack and tea bottle. They had an awful reputation and were used as ‘bogeymen’ to encourage better behaviour. Navvies had their own community and developed their own language. They didn’t mix much with the local inhabitants.

During the Crimean War, 1000 navvies went out their and succeeded in building a railway in just 7 weeks to rescue English troops from Sebastopol.

Navvies had a range of accommodation available to them. The worst was open moorland, limestone caves and rocks. Then there were sod huts, which were quite inadequate. Tents were available. Some navvies were lodged at local farms and houses – if they happened to be near the construction site. There were lodging houses but these were overcrowded and the navvies overcharged. It was not unknown for navvies to ‘slope off’ – sneak away without paying for food or lodging. Shantys were constructed. These were ramshackle, crude huts. These too were overcrowded – designed for 80 men, they often slept 120 who paid 4d for a bed, ½d for the floor and 1d for a table. Navvies could stay at inns or public houses. Some were housed in wooden huts with tarpaulin roofs, measuring 24ftx16ft and built by the contractor. These huts were rented by the foreman and his family who sublet to other navvies. Occupants of these wooden huts could be in them for up to 4 years depending on the length of the construction contract. Some made them into ‘homes’ with gardens, and sometimes pigs and chickens. Railways mission lodgings, converted canal boats and, occasionally, cottages were also option for those that could pay.

Contractors sometimes provided shops for the navvies to access, called tommy or tally shops. Local tradesmen sometimes brought their wares to the site (but they did charge higher prices). It was well known that contractors took on contracts at a loss, and made up their money from the workforce via the tommy shop.

Navvies were know to drink 10 pints of beer a day. For every mile of railway under construction, £1000 was spent on beer. As the mens wages were paid to them in the pub, lots of it was spent on drink. A “randy” was their names for a period of merriment (usually on or after payday), which could last 4 days. Navvies played hard and worked hard. Fighting was common, both brawling and prize fights.

Poaching was a common pastime for navvies – it helped provide food for their family. Missionary helpers provided Sunday schools, concerts and reading rooms where reading, listening and game playing occurred.

Women had a very hard life. They were expected to raise their family as well as look after their husband’s and other navvies’ food and clothing.

The Mission Society sought to attend to the navvy community’s needs. They produced a journal which can be a good source of information on marriages, as they were not always recorded in official registers, and for seeking/locating missing husbands or wives.

This was a fascinating insight into a life far distant for the here and now.

Willpower by Meryl Catty

Reading branch talk 30th March 2017

Meryl, as usual, gave a wonderful talk about wills and their uses to family historians. She started by stressing the fact that probate records are a valuable resource for family historians. Meryl then took us on a journey back in time to meet some ancestors. We met town folk, country folk, great landowners, tenant farmers, merchants, tradesmen, clergy, soldiers, sailors, men and women.

Firstly we went to 1984, the Pyte household in Suffolk. Mistress Mary is sick with smallpox and decides to put her affairs in order (make a will). She names items and who they were to be given to (friends, family and servants). John Pyte, her brother, is to be executor. Mr Aldous (will writer) would not enter the house but had the details for Marys will relayed to him. Unfortunately’ Mary died before the will was written up. ‘Death bed’ or unsigned wills are known as nuncupative wills.

Regardless of your ancestors apparent status or wealth, always look for a will – how do you know your ancestors were too poor to leave one, unless you look for one.

What is a will?

A will is a document by which a person specifies what happens to their property. A ‘will’ covers property and a ‘testament’ covers belongings.

One or more executor must be appointed, and once drawn up, a will must be signed by the testator (will maker) and 1 or 2 witnesses, unless it nuncupative, when people who know the testator may be asked to make an affidavit to say the will is the testators wishes. The testator can amend a will by making a codicil.

No will means the deceased died intestate. Letters of administration (letters of admon.) can be applied for.

If there is a non-legal will (no living executor, not witnessed, etc.) letters of admon can be granted with the will annexed.

Wills are personal and sometimes allow unexpected insight into the lives of ancestors.

In England and Wales, pre-1858 wills were proved in ecclesiastical courts (peculiar, archdeacon, consistory or prerogative court of York or Canterbury).

From 1858, wills are proved at either the principal probate registry in London or in local probate registries.

Some wills do not get produced for probate.

Bigsby Pytes will of 1806 mentions the will of his father Jeremiah, although no other trace of Jeremiah can be found. Never ignore a will. All sorts of people made wills. They can be a great source for family historians. They can detail family relationships, occupations, land holdings, status, personal property and even hints of feuds.

Elements of a will

Introduction – wills may start with one of the following

            In the name of God Amen …..

            The last will and testament …..

            In memorandum …. (likely to be nuncupative)

Date

Name of testator

Statement of health (especially in older wills) – generally a statement of mental health. This practice seems

to have died out by the end of 1700s.

 Burial instructions

Distribution of property – beneficiaries are named

Appoint executor (male) or executrix (female) – it is customary for a man to appoint his wife as executrix.

The wording used in wills can give a clue as to the state of a marriage – ‘beloved’ would indicate a happy marriage.

Sometimes a widow’s legacy is conditional on her remaining a widow.

Family relationships can be described.

Wills can detail real estate (free- or copyhold property). Testaments detail personal property and leasehold property.

Executor, probate and burial costs all have to be paid out of the estate first and then any legacies are honoured.

Admons – these give little genealogical information, but do give an approximate date and place of death. Additional documents provided can lead to unexpected discoveries.

Meryl gave lots of examples from wills throughout her presentation. 

Unusual prisoners of the Tower

Newbury Branch meeting Wed 12th April 2017

Speaker: Tony Strafford

The Tower of London has held enemies and heroes as prisoners. Life inside could be quite comfortable for those in “open confine”: in return for payment prisoners could eat well, have servants and visitors. Sir Walter Raleigh lived here with his wife and children (his second son was born in the Tower), and he also worked there as tutor to Henry, Prince of Wales. Even open-confine prisoners, however, had to observe the curfew bell each evening.

Read more: Unusual prisoners of the Tower

Additional information