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Coroner’s Inquest Reports

I have been working on Wolverhampton Inquest Reports of the nineteenth for about four months and they are fascinating. The trouble is because they are overlooked most of them have not been indexed properly and while you may not have had a relative whose sudden death prompted an inquiry, you may well have had a relative who was a witness. Even if neither is the case, the reports contain a great deal of information. Each sudden death reveals a little of what life was like at the time.  As I say  I have been studying the nineteenth century but Coroner’s Inquest reports go back much further than this. Examples survive from the fourteenth century, in Latin. After 1733 the reports, thankfully are in English.

Take as an example, Mrs Mary Ann Morton a widow who arrived in Wolverhampton from America. The year is 1887. All the journey she had been ill with bronchitis and gastro enteritis. She arrives at her destination in Steelhouse Lane assuming that she will meet her friend/relative, John Fieldhouse, who she believes still lives there. She speaks to one resident who has a grocer’s shop, Jane Shipley, who knows John Fieldhouse but says that the man hasn’t lived in the street for several years.

‘What am I to do says Mrs Morton, I have no money for lodgings.’

‘You are welcome to stay here, says Jane Shipley.’

And that is exactly what happened, but Mrs Morton’s stay was short-lived, as she died the next day. The verdict was that she died of natural causes, but suddenly one has other questions. What was Mrs Morton doing coming back to her (I assume) home town when she had no money? What was her relationship with John Fieldhouse and what was the purpose of her visit?  We could have picked up the basic information from the death registration but the inquest report brings the situation to life.

Or consider this accident case.

Elizabeth Willmore, aged 17, Piper’s Meadow, Bilston. Inquest at Newmarket Inn 1st Dec 1884.
At first the mother gives the surname Willmott and then she has to make a statement saying that she did this because she was very distressed. As a result  of this mistake, the mother cannot get the Club money for the deceased.
Ann Wilmore said the deceased worked at Scott and Harris’s in Bilston. She worked (I think) in the stores. She said she was carrying some spirit and she spilt some on her clothes and set herself on fire.
Mary  Jones worked at the same place and considers that Elizabeth Willmore fell over some cart shafts. The ostler came and put the fire out.
John Pritchard was  the ostler and saw her carrying ? white spirit.  It was her job to take it to the shop.

Here we have another lot of questions – What was the nature of the company, Scott and Harris, what was the Club money which the mother was due and why wasn’t she allowed it, how was she carrying the spirit and did it spontaneously combust? We get the impression of a workplace which was like a farm building with the cart shafts lying around.

The reason I can’t be certain of the detail is because the writing is so poor. Without exaggeration it is like this // //// // /. /. ////////. It is so infuriating – if only one could read the writing but  W. H. Phillips, the Coroner, has the worst writing in the world. The reason may have been because he had not only to listen to the statements but to write  down what was said at the same time.

I am a convert to Coroner’s Inquest Reports as a source of information. Don’t be fobbed off with the index, you need to read the full statements, see the names of jurors (each case had a jury) and the signatures of the witnesses, in order to get a real feel of things. You will see the usual ding-dongs which went on, the stroppy letters sent to the coroner as to why a certain witness says he will not attend. Usually this was because the man was  a factory owner/ manager and the deceased was a child. You will get an impression of the working conditions and home life of people (how often was the fire in the grate noted as being small?), what people did to enjoy themselves and how  they travelled around. You just never know what you are going to find, workhouse papers, prescriptions and a cheque being recent finds. Could the latter have been to bribe someone? Certainly the coroner writes that on no account is the cheque to be cashed.  If you can’t get the Report then the newspaper will have to do, second best but better than nothing.





World War 1

The National Archives have made some World War 1 letters available online.These are operational letters ie not private and  they will be very helpful for those not able to get to Kew and look at the originals. So far there are available letters relating to the first 3 cavalry regiments and the first seven infantry regiments of the British Army in World War 1. The marking of the centenary of WW1 will provide an opportunity to gather and put on line private material from World War 1.
On, Bob Shayler has been sharing a wealth of photographs with great descriptions. There are photographs of a family whose links with the army and navy go back to the First World War, from India and Ireland as well as England. Simply brilliant!

Royal Marines Light Infantry, Portsmouth 1915. C. W. Pook below the x


And then there is a poignant story about the lineage of a racehorse. Told by Sandra Barber, I leave Sandra to tell the story of the link between an exceptional racehorse and World War 1.

Shortly before the First World War, a tired and worried British army officer, arrived at the home of a farmer in County Meath, Ireland, leading a thoroughbred mare. He had been called up for service in France and he asked the farmer if he would take the mare and care for her until his return, when he would settle up what was owing. The farmer, a Mr Laurence Geraghty, was a great lover of horses and he told the officer that he would be only too pleased to look after her in his absence. The officer knew that she would be well-cared for and left happy in the knowledge she would have a good home. Sadly, the officer never returned, and Mr Geraghty was left with the mare “Miller’s Pride.” Later on, aged eighteen, she bred the famous “Golden Miller” and “May Crescent,” (another good winner in America.) Every foal that “Miller’s Pride” bore, was a winner. Who the army officer was, I don’t know. It is a bitter-sweet story obviously because of the death of the soldier (assuming he was killed) but had he returned the mare would probably never have been put in foal and  horseracing would have been deprived of an exceptional horse


Wolverhampton Past

‘Wolverhampton was once such a lovely town.’  We must all have heard something similar and I don’t think it is just a feeling of nostalgia.
When I come into the town from any direction I have to agree that it is not looking too good. Today I am travelling on the bus from Compton and the approach to Chapel Ash is marked by the derelict Eye Infirmary and the Charles Clark building. Up we go through Chapel Ash, a shadow of its former self since the Ring Road sliced through the bottom of Darlington Street. Before the Ring Road Darlington Street led naturally to Chapel Ash, post Ring Road the idea of going through a subway, albeit with a sunken garden in it, just didn’t have the same appeal. So Chapel Ash was left separated from the town centre and shoppers stopped visiting.

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The bus turns right at the Ring Road and then first left up past the retail market. Not exactly derelict but definitely in a sorry state not least because of its location. On its former site with the wonderful old wholesale market building it would have stood more of a chance of competing in today’s world. Now, tucked out of the way, I feel very sorry for those whose livelihoods depend upon passing trade, which a market usually does.  Remind me, just how did we lose our wonderful Market Square in front of St Peter’s?

We cross the bottom of Victoria Street and  Worcester Street. There is a row of old shops just falling down and the question is ‘Why?’  I remember walking down from Queen Square and the whole nature of this part of town was totally different from Queen Square and even from Victoria Street, of which it is really just an extension. Remind me, what are the plans for this area now and will it be worth the cost?

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Up Cleveland Street we go, a dispiriting road of  sixties and seventies development although I can just see some old workshops in the back yards of properties which are nice.Today I am off to Wolverhampton Archives and so I am walking through the Mander Centre. It is raining hard and as I walk through there are buckets lined up at strategic points to catch the rain. Remind me again, just how did we lose our Victorian  Arcade and was it in the name of improvement and something that would last?

I walk to Molyneux House, under the Ring Road which my father always said was built in the wrong place, far too close to the town. I emerge from the subway and pass a lovely old pub, The Wanderer, derelict of course, whose days must surely be numbered.

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It has been a journey which leaves me wondering where everything went wrong and just what did happen to Wolverhampton’s beautiful old streets and buildings? We cannot get back what has been lost but we can save the heritage we have and make sure that we make the best of what we have left. Springfield Brewery, the shops in Worcester Street, the J. N. Miller buildings, those around the Royal Hospital and many more landmarks are disappearing before our eyes and it is a disgrace. The question is, how do we stop it?

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Vinyl Covered Kitchen Units

OK the title is not likely to set the blood racing although in my case at least and I suspect in that of a number of other people it is likely to raise  blood pressure. The question is this, you buy a new fitted kitchen and you expect it to last a reasonable time, but how long is a reasonable time?
In my case I had the kitchen fitted in October 2008 so I have had it exactly five years and one month. My expectation was that a kitchen would last much longer than that. The fitted kitchen which was taken out, was from the 1980s, in perfect condition but dated. My other experiences were of kitchens which had lasted anything up to forty years. So my expectation of how long a kitchen lasts is a minimum of twenty years.
The problem which had arisen was that the vinyl doors had peeled. The very fact that there is a jargon term to describe this means that I am not the only person to have had this happen. Of course when you talk to the company this is what they always say, we have never had this happen before, you are the only person … the implication being that it is your fault.
Peeling is an odd way of describing what happens. I suppose when you are in the showroom and looking at these beautiful fitments you don’t ask what tat they are made of nor how long they will last. After five years I know now that these units are made of mdf (I assume) covered in a vinyl skin which is glued to the mdf underneath. What happens in peeling is that the glue loses its stickability and the vinyl floats away from the mdf. That lovely product you saw in the showroom looks like an absolute load of rubbish.
With some trepidation, because I know what it is like being a consumer in this day and age, I ring the company who fitted the kitchen. They send a man out to look at the problem. Actually he says he is coming to measure the doors. The suggestion is that I will have to pay for them. I say, no, you are coming to look at the problem with the doors. When he sees them there is the usual, ‘we’ve never had that happen before,’ but it depends how they have been used. I point to the immaculate house, and say,’ does it look as though they have been abused?’ He won’t agree they haven’t, but he then indicates the cause of the problem – the sun. I live in England, for goodness sake, not Australia or California. My immediate reaction was that if the sun was going to cause the glue to be ineffective then you should not have put the units in that position.
The conversation goes on. We talk about who is going to pay for them.
‘Well who do you think is going to pay for them? he says. ‘If the manufacturer accepts liability then you will have to pay us to fit them.’ No, I say, I paid you for supplying and fitting the units, they were not two separate transactions. He appears not to understand that and suggests that I don’t understand what he is saying. He relates it to buying a car which is under guarantee for a while and then you have to pay for repairs. I say that is totally different so he then tries to explain to this stupid customer that it is like buying a fridge or a washing machine. I am not interested in his examples and do not want him in the house any longer. I move towards the door but he stands and presumably will stand until I say I will pay for something. Eventually he goes and I am left bruised, battered but unbowed.
I ring up the boss of the company but should have known better. If the staff are bullies there is only one person they have got it from. We have exactly the same patter about cars and fridges and I try to put my side of things. The boss explains that I had a one year guarantee with the kitchen but he will see what he will do, if the manufacturer will replace them free of charge. However, I will have to pay for fitting. No, I say, and repeat my argument about it being a package. We are getting nowhere and I put the phone down.
It is time to call trading standards (Citizen’s Advice) to see where I stand. I write the company a letter explains what my rights are and no sooner have I done that than the owner of the shop is on the phone saying. ‘I am trying to do my best for you Mrs Smith but your attitude has been terrible from Day 1.’ (as we are only at Day 1, I don’t understand this.) He goes on ‘You are only angry because you are not getting your own way and unless you apologise I am not going to do anything.’ I apologise but mentally note that at no time has the company apologised for the shoddy goods nor for their attitude. All this seems to be my fault.
This week I have received a letter offering to replace the doors even though the manufacturer’s guarantee only lasts for 5 years so, surprise surprise, mine are one month out of guarantee. The sting in the tail is that I will have to pay for fitting the doors and the cost including VAT is £96. When I send the cheque they will order the doors. I would be happy to receive the doors free of charge and find someone else to fit them but suspect that the £96 will be to pay for the six new doors.
Phew, what sort of a country is this where these traders can treat clients in this way. We have so much legislation but they aren’t bothered by this in the slightest. I have great doubts about these vinyl covered units being fit for the purpose in any kitchen and if they cannot cope with sunlight, what situation are they suitable for? I rang up one of the largest manufacturers of vinyl covered units in the UK and asked how long this covering would last for. ‘That depends,’ was the answer. Unless you can be definite on the life of a product such as this, then why would it be used in a kitchen with an expected life of twenty years?

The Value of Sharing History

Someone once described history to me as like collecting things for their own sake. No, that is not what history is, what makes history is telling the story of the past and to do that we need to have enough pieces of the past to tell the story accurately. That is why we need to be collectors before we can be storytellers.

When we work with history we put pieces together to make a narrative. A photograph on its own doesn’t tell us much of historical value but it does tell us something. I do know it was taken at the Wesleyan School in Barnstaple, Devon and I do know that it is of Standard 111. Mabel Hulland is the teacher on the right. I would love to know more about the children, the school and the area.

History is like seeing through a glass, darkly. The questions we have are many and some may never be answered. Most history is  hidden from our gaze. Even in archives much of the material held is not easily accessed and even more data is in private hands. Photos, letters, research, invoices, obituaries, written material, memories, artefacts of all sorts; the list is endless.

We may have many reasons for keeping this history to ourselves but is it ours to keep? Does a metal detectorist own a coin which he has found and does he have the right to keep that to himself? In the UK the law has clarified these responsibilities. Anything found which is over 300 years of age must be declared and recorded for posterity, photographed, described and usually returned to the owner. The ownership is clear, the artefact  belongs to the owner but the history belongs to everyone.

What if we had the same system for the history which is in our own homes, factories, churches etc.? If all this history could be sucked out and put  somewhere where it could be shared. We would be amazed at our harvest. Perhaps then we would understand the value of that tatty little photo we have or that letter sent from  a whaling ship in 1887 which we just thought was of family interest.

It is down to personal choice what we do with our history but today the internet offers us the opportunity to have our cake and eat it.  We can now keep our history and share it, just as in the same way a metal detected coin is recorded and then returned to its owner. Except in this case the material never needs to leave your home.

So what is stopping us from sharing our history? We can give reasons such as ‘I don’t have the technical skills’ or ‘I haven’t got time’, etc but in essence it comes down to the fact that we haven’t recognised the benefit of so doing. It is that old cost-benefit equation. If there was a clear benefit, then the time and effort of scanning in and describing documents and photographs would seem trivial. It is not enough for me to say how important your history is or mine for that matter but I know that one day someone will be very grateful that we made the effort to share it.

Spam and Hotmail

I have just had a spam attack on my website (not on this blog) and it is driving me completely insane. It comes from the USA, mainly, with a lot from China and Eastern Europe. While it may not be from one geographical region it is from one email provider above all others and no prizes for guessing which one. accounts for every single spammer (apart from one) I have ever had. This begs the question, if every other email account provider stops these spammers why don’t Hotmail? Is there any way hotmail can be made to sort this out or is it in Hotmail’s interest to keep these crazy folk on their books?

Spam is expensive for small companies and reduces one’s effectiveness – less time to do the job which needs to be done because so much time is taken up sorting out this rubbish. I would love to have a forum on my website but that isn’t going to happen until the spamming stops.

Just a postscript. Today is the 25th October and I have deleted  3 spammers who had activity on 25 sites on the 15th October. How quickly does Hotmail delete these users?

Production is Marketing

I found myself recently engaging in a discussion on Linked In about how to find an audience for valuable content on the internet. My point was that the more time one spends creating good content the less time there is for marketing. The response was made that ‘Production is marketing.’ My immediate thought was that it most definitely is not. I assume that the man’s suggestion was that good content will always find an audience. I think that is absolute rubbish and I would go further and say that the power of mass marketing is the dumbing down of content to go for mass appeal.
Why do we need an audience at all, you may ask? If your content is so important to you, in quality terms, then you may say that you can just carry on producing good work. Hmm, but clearly there are advantages in having an audience. Last night I watched the results of an architectural heritage competition and the interviewer asked someone what is the value of an award like this. I paraphrase what he said, ‘There is an immense value in early recognition of one’s work, it gives you a platform to express your ideas.’ I thought, that is it, you are so right but in the cold light of day one of the things that strikes me about competitions is that there is one winner. No-one remembers the person who didn’t make the final cut but does it mean that their work is of lesser quality?
William Blake never won a competition but those who beat him in the hunt for that platform for  ideas are eclipsed by Blake’s legacy. Thankfully he didn’t give up because he didn’t have an immediate audience. He worked hard, almost up to the moment he died. His God and his creativity were the important things in his life. Blake wrote:

I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s; I will not reason and compare: my business is to create

Blake was a difficult man but he may have become increasingly so the more his work was ignored and ridiculed. It is isolating and dispiriting to have one’s creation whatever it is, totally ignored.

In the 1960s when I was at Aberystwyth University a friend of mine said you must go along to a poetry reading given by R. S. Thomas. I had never heard of R. S Thomas but I went along. The room was large, too large as it turned out for the number of people who went. There were about twelve of us, just one row of people, and that row not even full. I was captivated by the man’s work and to have the poet himself doing the reading was amazing. How did R. S. Thomas feel about having such a small audience? Was he disappointed, embarrassed, did he feel like giving up? I don’t know, his face gave nothing away. It was a professional performance with no jokey interaction with the audience such as one might have today, the work spoke for itself and no-one thought anything of this wild, rather dishevelled-looking figure at the front. Thomas was not there to say, ‘Look at me, I am the greatest living Welsh poet.’
I remember one of the poems he read that day and it is appropriate to what we are talking about. It is called ‘The Welsh Hill Country.’

Too far for you to see
The fluke and the foot-rot and the fat maggot
Gnawing the skin from the small bones,
The sheep are grazing at Bwlch-y-Fedwen,
Arranged romantically in the usual manner
On a bleak background of bald stone.

Too far for you to see
The moss and the mould on the cold chimneys,
The nettles growing through the cracked doors,
The houses stand empty at Nant-yr-Eira,
There are holes in the roofs that are thatched with sunlight,
And the fields are reverting to the bare moor.

Too far, too far to see
The set of his eyes and the slow pthisis
Wasting his frame under the ripped coat,
There’s a man still farming at Ty’n-y-Fawnog,
Contributing grimly to the accepted pattern,
The embryo music dead in his throat.

The beauty of the country as seen from afar is a romantic view, look at it close up and you will see the reality of the pain and struggle, for both sheep and man, for both there is the constant awareness of hardship and death. It is a way of life which is the very antithesis of romance and pleasure. I know the set of those eyes. I saw them yesterday in the eyes of a beggar on the streets, tired, inward looking and hauntingly sad.

So which is more important, content or marketing? Content all the time, I say. Would I be happier if R. S. Thomas had spent more time on marketing and less on writing and how would Thomas or Blake have coped in today’s world of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and any others I have missed out. Would they have worried if they had had only 12 likes for their latest post?

My mother once said to me after I was looking particularly tired, ‘You are not a cart horse, Jane.’ How wrong she was. A cart horse is exactly what I am, a show horse I  certainly am not. I understand what I am trying to do as did Blake and Thomas and I hope I am as uncompromising in the pursuit of the best as they were. How quality content should be marketed is another question altogether.