Now we’ve all heard of the great fire of London which happened in 1666, but have you ever considered how it would affect your family history research?
I’ll start with some background. The fire started on the 2nd September 1666 in Pudding Lane, London which was only a few streets north of the river Thames. The fire started in a bakery and raged within the old city walls of the city from the Strand to the Tower of London and as far north as the Guildhall until the 6th September. During this time hundreds of people were made homeless and had to flee the city. Surprisingly only 6 people are reported to have died in the fire. Also in the fire the plague rats died!
Now here is where the fire impacts of family history research. 89 parish churches were lost in the fire including St Pauls. 35 of these churches were never rebuilt.
So what does this mean to family historians? Well it means you have to readjust what you know. The fire resulted in people having to move from the area they lived in. So if you have been happily tracing your family back through one church in London and then you can’t find anymore ancestors it may be because they were new to the church just after 1666.
So what do you do? Well the best place to start is probably to find out which parish churches were lost in the fire and find out which ones were closest to where your ancestors lived after 1666. Although this will not give you an accurate indication of where they moved from, it may help. Families may have wanted to stay as close as possible to where they lived and worshiped before as they worked in the area. On the other hand they may have move away as they needed housing and where they worked may have been destroyed in the fire.
So how do you overcome this? Well don’t just focus on the immediate area. If you can’t find what you’re looking for expand your search. Also focus on what you know. If you ancestors were having children baptised at a church from a certain date but you haven’t found the couple’s marriage there then maybe they had to move church because it was lost in the fire. So from here you need to look around the other churches. Also make a note of any occupations listed on the children’s baptisms. This can help you if you find a couple with the same names in another church. If the man has the same occupation then there is a chance it is your ancestors. This may not always follow though as they may have had to change job after the fire. If your ancestors have an unusual surname then it is relatively easy to find where they came from. Sorry to anyone with the name Smith as this will be difficult, but congratulation if you have got back this far, you are a genealogy hero.
It has not been only the great fire of London that has caused problems like this. There have been many disasters over the years that may have resulted in your family having to move. If you have ancestors from Sheffield you may suddenly find them disappearing as you go back. What may people don’t know is that in 1864 Sheffield had a “great flood” when a newly built dam wall cracked and the town was flooded. 240 people died and over 600 homes were lost. If your ancestors seem to suddenly appear in say north Sheffield it could be they came from west Sheffield where the destruction occurred.
The same moving of your ancestors could also have happened if they were miners. Over the years they have been many mining disasters which may have led to the closures of the pit. Your ancestors may have had to move to new coal filed to get new jobs and so all of a sudden the Northumberland family you thought you had is now in Yorkshire.
So although we don’t like to think about disasters such as the great fire they do have an influence on our research as they change the lives of our ancestors. So remember it may not be a brick wall you’ve hit, it may be relocation.
These days all we see are the shells of the former monastic buildings and probably think no more about it, but monasteries have always held an interest to me. When I was growing up in Sheffield I lived less than 1 mile from Beauchief Abbey and every winter the land around the Abbey became a popular place to go. The land next to the Abbey church (which is all that is left standing and is still used today) is a municipal golf course in the city and has a rather long steep hill, excellent to sledging!
Beauchief Abbey was established in Derbyshire in 1183 after the land was given by Robert FitzRanulph who was the Lord of Alfreton.
Beauchief Abbey was run by the Premonstratensian order or white cannons. They served as priests for the surrounding churches and worked within the community. They also had farms, fish pond and a smithy on the nearby river Sheaf (the source of the city of Sheffield’s name). The abbey continued serving the community through until 1537 when the abbey surrender itself to King Henry VIII during his dissolution of the monasteries when he moved away from Catholicism and made himself the head of the Church of England. Beauchief Abbey was one of the first to go as it was 1536 that the change began. Initially the monasteries were just reformed, not dissolved. Then the abbey and land was sold to Sir Nicholas Strelley for £223(now approximately £72,000). Today Strelley Avenue and Strelley Road still exist within Sheffield (Beauchief is now an area of Sheffield and in the county of Yorkshire). The buildings of the abbey continued to be used until the 1660’s when they were taken down to build the nearby Beauchief Hall for Edward Pegg. He and his decedents continued to use the church building as their private chapel. In the 1930’s the Pegg family gave the land and buildings to the Sheffield Corporation. Much of the land became Beauchief municipal golf course and the Abbey itself still hold services to this day, albeit small services as the building is really small. In the 1950’s the Abbey building was made a scheduled monument.
What did the closure of the Abbey’s mean for the population of the country as a whole. Well in general terms things became worse for our ancestors. The monks may have taken care of the spiritual needs of the community, but they also provided many other ways they helped the community. Anyone who has ever read the Brother Cadfael novels by Ellis Peters will know Cadfael was an apothecary who helped heal the medical problems of not only the Abbey, but also the town and surrounding villages. This fairly factual as the abbeys were well known for have infirmaries to tend the sick and injured. Many of the larger abbeys also acted as lodging houses where travellers and pilgrims could get board and lodgings.
The main way the abbeys aided the community though was through employment. They abbey needed workers to survive. With the number of religious duties they had to preform they had no time for the everyday tasks. They employed farmer, labourers, stone masons, gardeners, cooks, housekeeper, laundry workers and many others. When the abbeys closed all these people would have lost their jobs and others would be hard to come by. This would have impacted the wider community as rent and bills couldn’t be paid and families may have become destitute. If you became destitute who would you turn to? The monasteries! So a vicious circle began.
In the end if you ignore the religious aspect of the monasteries the dissolution damaged the communities surrounding them. It left the skeletons of the buildings behind to decay and be pulled down for the stone. In most cases all that’s left is the main church buildings, if anything at all. One of the most famous abbey churches still being used today is Westminster Abbey (which is actually called the Collegiate Church of St Peter, Westminster).
So it is possible that the dissolution of the monasteries impacted your ancestors whether directly through losing their jobs or indirectly by the loss of the service the abbeys bought to the communities.
Sheffield, the place I called home for 27 years is a large city with a village feel. Sheffield is somewhat of a forgotten city despite being the 5th largest in the UK. The most people know about Sheffield is that it has 2 universities, Sheffield University and Sheffield Hallam University and is the home of the World Championship snooker every year at the Crucible Theatre. But what else do people know, well I bet it’s not about the cities unique landscape and history.
Sheffield developed at the point where 5 rivers merged, the Porter, the Don, the Sheaf (which gives the city its name), the Loxley and the Riverlin and is built on 7 hills. The city has in excess of 2 million tress (although the council seems to like removing them!) which makes it one of the most wooded cities in Europe and was once part of the ancient woodland than covered most of the ancient kingdom of Mercia.
There has been a settlement in the area for thousands of years, but it wasn’t until after the Norman Conquest in 1066 that a more permanent settlement developed. Sheffield got its first castle in the early 12th century. It was built by William de Lovetot, but was destroyed in 1266 along with the rest of the town during the Barons War. A new castle was begun in 1270 by Thomas de Furnival (there is a street called Furnival Gate still in the city). Whilst it was in the ownership of the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury and his wife Bess of Hardwick (a local woman who is a former incumbent of Chatsworth House (her descendent became the Dukes of Devonshire) and a friend of Queen Elizabeth) Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned in the castle as well as at the nearby Sheffield Manor for 14 years. The Furnival castle was damaged by an earthquake in 1574 (in my life Sheffield has experience 2 little ones) and was eventually destroyed in 1648 on the orders of Parliament during the Civil War as the castle was held for the King. Today the ruins of the castle are under the former Castle Market, but will be examined over the coming years as the site is developed. The oldest building in the city is the Queens Head Pub possibly built around the 1470’s. It is still a pub today.
Sheffield has suffered many times over the years.
1000’s – Settlement destroyed during the Harrying of the North.
1266 – Town destroyed during the Barons War.
1537 – Beauchief Abbey was closed during the dissolution of the monasteries. The Cannons who lived here did much for the local community, including acting as the local clergy.
1640’s – 1660’s – Impact of the Civil War
1832 – Cholera epidemic hits Sheffield as a result of poor living conditions due to the industrial revolution. 400+ died as a result and are remembered today at the Cholera Monument in Norfolk Park.
1864 – The great Sheffield Flood hit the city when the Dale Dike dam wall fails. 270 people died in the floods which hit the Loxley end of the city, but got as far as the city centre and where the current M1 motorway runs past Meadowhall (which was a highly industrialised area).
1940 – On the nights of the 12th to the 15th of December Sheffield is heavily bombed by the Germans during the Sheffield Blitz. My own family was affected as my Grandparents were bombed out of their lodgings. They were in the Abbeydale cinema across the road at the time. They were unhurt, as was their landlady. They moved in with their landlady’s family and remained there until after the war. The friendship continued and my Mum and her Brother regarded them as surrogate grandparents.
Sheffield is the proud home of steel and is known as the Steel City. It was in the 1740’s that Benjamin Huntsman developed a new process in the production of steel which lead to much more strength than any steel previously made using the crucible method (the containers it was made in). In the 1860’s Sir Henry Bessemer was instrumental in turning Sheffield into the powerhouse of steel manufacture. He built factories using his Bessemer converter method which put oxygen in to the iron to get rid of the impurities, thus the steel was of much better quality. In 1913 Harry Brearley developed the process of stainless steel in the city which revolutionised the way steel could be used.
Stainless steel also revolutionised another important industry that has been prevalent in the city for hundreds of years. Cutlery, razor and blade making. Since the 1600’s Sheffield had been the centre of cutlery manufacture in England. Most of my ancestors from the city and the surrounding environs were involved in the industry. They were sickle and scythe makers for farming and pocket and pen blade forgers and razor grinders for everyday use. By being able to make cutlery out of stainless steel it didn’t tarnish with use and was cheaper than having silver. Today the city still has a Master Cutler and a Cutlers Hall which was built in 1832 and is a grade 2* listed building.
There are many famous people from the city including those already mentioned. Helen Sharman was the first Briton in space and she went to the same secondary school I did (although she left 10 years before I went and the school’s name had changed, but it was the same buildings).
The city has had 2 recipients of the Victory Cross medal, William Barnsley Allen VC, DSO, MC and Arnold Loosemore VC DCM, both for gallantry during WW1.
In the sporting world we have Joe Root the current England Test Cricket Captain was born and raised in the city. Good luck in the Ashes! Also Michael Vaughan the former England Test Cricket Captain (I know he wasn’t born here, but he did live here).
People from the world of music born in the city include, Joe Cocker, Jarvis Cocker and Pulp, Paul Carrick, Def Leppard and the Human League amongst others.
So next time you think of Sheffield, remember the city does exist and I’m proud of the city as its where many of my ancestors were born and bred, as was I.
Hello and thank you for taking the time to read my ramblings on genealogy and history in general. I hope you find it informative and hopefully funny!