Life in the Pit

This week I finished a project in which every single known ancestor was a coal miner – except one – I’ve never been so happy to find an agricultural labourer! So, to liven up the presentation, I did some research into the life of the twentieth-century British coalminer and found some fascinating facts and resources:

  • Here’s a wonderful film made for the LNWR (London & Northwestern Railway). It’s called ‘A Day in the Life of a Wigan Coal Miner 1911’ and contains remarkable old footage of men collecting their Davy lamps and descending into the pit; teams of women sorting coal, hauling pit props and loading wagons; and young boy ‘putters’, shovelling coal into wagons or pushing heavy carts from one part of the mine to another.
  • Women, and children as young as five or six, worked below-ground until 1842 in Britain, when The Mines and Collieries Act was passed. The Commission revealed that many of the side workings away from the main shaft were only 22 inches in height, and women and children had to crawl along dragging the coal in sledges behind them. The Victorians were also shocked to discover that girls and women were working bare-breasted below-ground.
  • A miner’s shift would be as long as twelve hours during the mid 1800s, with only Sundays off. Hewers at the coalface would spend almost all that time in dark, cramped, noxious conditions. The Coalmining History Resource Centre has a great picture story detailing A Day in a Miner’s Life from 1939.
  • The ‘Miner’s Crouch’ describes the resting position preferred by men who spent many hours underground. Either resting on his heels or a low stool, it was said to ease the stomach muscles.
Photo courtesy of the Coalmining History Resource Centre

Photo courtesy of the Coalmining History Resource Centre

  • Lunch down the mine would usually be just water, bread and jam. The coal dust, which tainted every mouthful, and the cramped conditions made eating more of a necessity than a pleasure.
  • Mining accidents were commonplace, sometimes bereaving whole communities at a time. Here are a few websites which list them:

Alphabetical List of Mining Disasters in Great Britain

Wikipedia – Mining Accident

Scottish Mining Website

Welsh Mining Disasters

  • Working and living in such close quarters, with the ever-present threat of injury or even death, miners and their families lived in close-knit communities. Charities were set up in various counties, to look after those who could no longer work down the mines because of injury, illness or just old-age. One example is the ‘Durham Aged Mineworkers’ Homes Association.’

There! That was just some of my work last week – I hope it helps others who are researching relatives who were miners. Please feel free to add any comments you have – I’d love to hear from you.

Weirdly Wonderful British Placenames


It’s not just strange names that make us smile as we research your family history – sometimes it’s the places that seem too weird to be true. Here are a few of our favourites:

Barton in the Beans

The population of this hamlet in Leicestershire was only about 177 in the 1830s. Even now there’s not much more than a Baptist church and a post box. The name comes from the Olde English words, bere, meaning barley and tun, meaning settlement or enclosure. Put together they described an outlying farm or grange. ‘In the beans’ was probably added to distinguish the Leicester Barton from several other places with the same name. Leicestershire was once famous for cultivating broad beans as in the popular saying: “Shake a Leicestershire man by the collar and you can hear the beans rattle in his belly.”

St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe

When we have found reference to this strange place, it has been used to describe addresses within the parish of the Anglican church which bears the same name. The church is on Queen Victoria Street in London, near Blackfriars station. It acquired its name after 1361, when Edward III moved his Royal Wardrobe from the Tower of London to a new storehouse close to the church. The king’s wardrobe at the time consisted of armoury, clothing, jewellery and other personal items. Both the church and the Wardrobe were destroyed in the Great Fire of London, but the church was rebuilt in 1695 to Sir Christopher Wren’s design.

The Devil’s Arse

This is actually the name of a cavern in Castleton, Derbyshire, so we’re cheating a little here, although it was the home to some of Britain’s last troglodytes (cave-dwellers), who built houses inside the cave mouth and made a living from rope-making. The cave was apparently given this fantastical name because of the noises that emanate from inside the cave when flood water is draining away. Its name was changed in 1880 when Queen Victoria was invited to attend a concert there, but its name has reverted to the ruder version in recent years, presumably to attract curious tourists!

Newtown Unthank

Here’s one more Leicestershire village to finish off with. Apparently this place-name has nothing to do with ingratitude, but was derived from a pre-7th century Olde English word, unpance, which literally means ‘without leave.’ It was used to describe a piece of land that was unlawfully occupied. Perhaps the new occupants never actually left and the new settlement became a ‘new town’ in its own right?

Discussion: I hope you enjoyed our bizarre names! What are the weirdest British placenames you’ve found in your research? Please add them to the comments below. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Did your ancestors eat better than you do?

Wartime children eating carrots on sticks.

Wartime children eating carrots on sticks.

‘Please sir, I want some more’ This phrase immediately brings to mind an image of little Oliver Twist holding out his bowl for more gruel. And perhaps this is what we think of the British diet in the past – tiny portions of food that were lacking in nutritional value and frankly unappetising. But is this true? What did our ancestors eat and could their diets actually be the key to better health for us in the 21st century?

Just for fun, the Family Detective team did a little research into the average diets of two bygone eras:

The Victorians

According to Chris Kresser in his article ‘What Mid-Victorians Can Teach Us About Nutrition and Health,’ the Victorians were generally quite a healthy bunch and their life expectancy was as good as ours is now (after compensating for infant deaths). Obesity was rare and incidents of cancer, heart disease and diabetes were 10% of what they are now. Why? Chris’s research shows that Victorians ate:

  • More foods with high nutrient value like fruits, vegetables, organic meat, nuts, seeds and offal.
  • Local, seasonal produce, bought from a local market or foraged from the countryside. Fruits and vegetables in season have a much higher nutritional value.
  • Naturally prebiotic food (good for your gut) like onions, garlic and leeks.
  • Fatty fish like herring, mackerel, as well as eel and shellfish.
  • Less alcohol – their beer was generally only 1-2% unlike our modern equivalent of about 4-5%.
  • Very little refined sugar, flour and processed foods generally.

1940s War Rations

There were undoubtedly elements of rationing that were rather grim. You may even remember being served regular meals of liver and onions or Spam, but again, it seems, Britons were healthier during rationing than they are now. So, what were your weekly rations?

  • Meat to the value of 1 shilling and sixpence, which equals around about 1/2 lb minced beef, plus 4 oz of bacon and ham. These days we’re regularly told to eat less red meat.
  • Only 2 oz of butter, 2oz of cheese, one egg (per week remember!) and 3 pints of milk.
  • Just 4 oz of cooking fat.
  • Perhaps the biggest difference of all – 8 oz of sugar, which equates to 32g per day. The current UK guidelines suggest limiting our intake to 90g a day.
  • 1 lb of jam or marmalade every 2 months.
  • 2 oz of tea – I’d struggle with this one!
  • Every 4 weeks you were allowed 12 oz of sweets and candy. That’s about 6 regular-sized Mars bars a month.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom – some people got very creative at stretching out these rations.  A while ago I interviewed my Grandma and remember her talking about using the fat from the tinned sausage meat to make the pastry for a pie (Here’s the article, with her voice: “A Welcome Ghost from the Past”). Also, foods that we would now consider ‘good-for-you’, such as local, seasonal, fruit and vegetables, were not restricted at all.

Discussion: So, what do you think? Should we try and return to the dietary habits of the past? Do you remember rationing? What did you think of it then and now? Please add your comments below: You can leave a comment by clicking here.

The Bizarre Origins of your Surname

Photo by Colby T.

Photo by Colby T.

The idea of last names came to Britain with the Normans when they invaded in 1066 – hence the word ‘surname’, which derived from the French word ‘sur’ meaning ‘over’ or a name over a whole a family, like a banner. Documents of the time listed noble families and migrants from the continent and names such as Norman, Williams and French still reflect the influx of these new people groups.

British surnames were mainly established during the 13th or 14th centuries when they were given to people other than noblemen and foreigners. Some of them have remained the same over the centuries, but others, because of dialect and erratic spelling, have continued to develop – sometimes into an astounding number of variations. Take the name Bushell, as an example. Starting off as Bossall or Boisel, it has ended up being recorded as Busill, Busswell, Bissell, Biswell, Bishell, Boshell and Bushill, among others.

So what about your surname? Some like Baker, Cooper or Clark may have fairly obvious origins, but others may be so far removed from the original words as to be almost unrecognisable.

It is likely that your surname originated in one of four ways:

Occupational names

Most of these are fairly straightforward but for some, a little research is required. Fletcher for example is a term we no longer use in everyday life but in medieval times it described a person who made and sold arrows. Stringer, also came from this type of occupation and was given as a surname to people who strung long bows.

Geographical names

These were given to describe someone who had travelled to a community from another place. Some are obvious: Scott or French, for example, but others, like Denton or Wells may have originated from a lesser known place, or even a village or town that has since disappeared.

Topological names

Similar to geographical surnames, these were given to connect someone to a feature on the landscape and would be given to someone who lived in a wood, or up a hill or by a lake. Some were combinations of words, such as Weston, which derives from the Olde English pre-7th century words, ‘west’ meaning west and ‘tun’ meaning settlement.


Someone with beady eyes or a good singing voice may acquire the surname of Bird or one of my favourites is the surname Joy, given to someone who was full of cheer. Medieval people were often a little churlish with their nicknames however, hence the names Bullock or Fish. There is evidence to suggest that some nicknames were actually ironic in nature, so Little being used to describe a giant of a man, such as Robin Hood’s compatriot, Little John!

Are you able to hazard a guess at the origins of your surname now? To check if you’re right, click over to this handy free website:

Discussion: Have you found any really fascinating surnames? Share what you’ve found in the comments. You can leave a comment by clicking here.