A journey through time

Since about the age of 12 I’ve had an interest in family history. Back then, my father helped me meet many elderly relatives to talk to them about the ‘who’ and the ‘when’ (I think he was just as interested as me, but let me do the recording).

When I lived in England in the 1980s I was able to complete a tree for the Simpson family that took me back to 1541 in Oxfordshire. The family line comprised generations of farm workers, with only the man who emigrated to New Zealand bucking the trend and becoming a carpenter and cabinet-maker.

St Mary the Virgin Church in Black Bourton, Oxfordshire. Its earliest features are Norman and there may even be a Saxon remnant but the real highlight are the 13th century wall paintings, finally uncovered for good in 1932. My ancestors Francis Hall and Mary Turner were married here on January 26, 1778. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Back then, such research had to be carried out at St Catherine’s House on Holborn in London (Somerset House records, so useful to detectives like Miss Marple, had mostly moved there in 1970) or, for pre-1830 birth, death and marriage (bdm) records, at the county archives. Typed transcriptions of Oxfordshire parish records and other historic documents were in Oxford, a good excuse to spend a few days there. All of the bdm records were in bound volumes, large and small, that users had to locate on shelves and search on reading desks. The hand-written St Catherine’s House ledgers were organised by quarter for each year for each type of record, while the parish records ran year by year with all the record types in together.

St Catherine’s House closed to the public in 1997 and the records moved to The National Archives in Kew (usually closed Sunday-Monday).

Staying in The Carpenter’s Arms, formerly a pub and now a B&B in Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, was a real treat. Doubtless several generations of Simpsons quenched their thirst here and the licensee in the 1871 and 1881 censuses was James Hall, the younger brother of my great-great-great grandmother Simpson. The current owners are Ray and Janet Simpson, sadly no relation! Photo: Sandra Simpson

The England and Wales bdm records can now be searched online and ordered as pdf downloads sent by email which you can then save to your hard drive (paper copies are still available to be ordered too but are more expensive). See the General Register Office website for England and Wales (which includes links if you want records from Scotland or Northern Ireland). Registration is required, but the site is free to search.

UK Wills and Probate records is a free website with an easy search function. Records start in 1858 and many, even into the 20th century, include date of death, address of the deceased and names of executors (and sometimes their relationship to the deceased).

Census records for England (my primary country of research) have been kept from 1830 and, back in the 1980s, were available on microfiche but are now scanned or photographed and available digitally. They are released 100 years after the census was taken so many family historians are looking forward to 2021 when the 1921 records become available for the first time.

The font in St Mary’s Church, Bridgwater, Somerset, where several generations of my Chubb ancestors, were baptised. Photo Sandra Simpson

Census records are invaluable for cross-checking the number of children in a family – for instance, if a birth record has been missed, it becomes apparent; ditto a death record for a child. They also give revealing insights into a family’s circumstances – the kind of work the adults had (anyone over the age 13 was generally working in the middle and lower classes), where they lived, and who was in residence on census day (which can help tracking down a marriage or a death, establishing relationships or even why you haven’t been able to find someone’s birth record, generally because they were born outside the UK).

Not all census records are the same. Some are quite basic, while the 1911 UK census, for instance, took information on the family home, including how many rooms it had.

For reasons unknown, New Zealand destroys its census records after the statisticians have combed them. Which means that, sadly, my farming grandfather’s report on his stock numbers that culminated in and 50,000 bloody fleas has been lost to posterity!

New Zealand has a searchable bdm online, including still births, but because of privacy restrictions, you don’t get everything. Restrictions vary from 50 to 100 years ago.

Not all hunting bears tangible rewards. Thanks to the efficient staff at Maldon Museum, I roughly know where my Scottish ancestors William and Jean/Jane Risk are buried – in unmarked graves somewhere along this fence line in Maldon cemetery, Victoria, Australia. Photo: Sandra Simpson

In 2020 much of this information is now available online and can be done from home, albeit at a price. However, if you don’t fancy stumping up for one of the web businesses, such as ancestry.com or findmypast, there are alternatives.

The Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormon Church) runs the free Family Search website, which is a good place to start. It doesn’t have all the records the paid websites have, but it has plenty to be going on with – bdm, census, even some passenger lists. It also offers a place to build your family tree as you go, although I would suggest that new users check to see if anyone has been over the same ground and the work is already done.

When libraries open again in New Zealand, you’ll find that, in city libraries at least, they have free-to-access institutional copies of ancestry.com, findmypast, etc. A family history centre at a Mormon Church will offer the same.

Records on the paid sites, though, are still far from complete. However, what they do almost always have is a view of the original record – and it’s vital that you look at it. A highly respected local genealogist told me that, besides volunteers in English-speaking countries, transcribers used by paid sites are often in India or China, so have English as a second language, or are prisoners in the US! I have found some laughable errors in transcriptions.

Family Search covers the UK, the US and Australia pretty well, Canada and New Zealand less well, and you might strike it lucky if your ancestors emigrated to or worked in South America, India or Hong Kong and China.

The Families in British India Society database is helpful and free to search, while the argbrit website has records for 19th and 20th century British settlers in Argentina and Uruguay.

Google helped find this George Romney portrait of my husband’s ancestor, William Prowting (1708-94). Image: Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust

Google can also be your friend. Since lockdown began I have found the transcription of a 1721 English will (which gave me another generation of names in this elusive family); a list of headstone inscriptions at the English cemetery in Livorno, Italy; family memorial inscriptions around the UK; and a long and detailed obituary for a horticulturalist ancestor of my husband. The Gentleman’s Magazine (scanned issues from 1731 to about 1922) has coughed up such gems as an 1820 descent in a diving bell by a woman I was hunting.

The other big win was finding an email address for a man who has done a detailed family tree for one of my husband’s families. Kevin was only too pleased to send the extensive document for sharing.

So, where do you start? With a guaranteed name and a date and work your way out, in ever-expanding circles, from there. Hopefully, you won’t run into the situation I experienced where my great-great-great grandfather Brown had very kindly given his son two distinctive first names but was, however, himself called James Brown … and lived in London! End of the road on that one.

Plants in the National Gallery, London

I love still life paintings – there’s something about the serenity and the abundance that appeals, so, with galleries around the world closed for the time being, I thought I’d share some more plant art.

Image: The National Gallery

Still Life with Lemons in a Wicker Basket was painted in about 1643 by Spanish artist Juan de Zurbaran (1620-49). Fewer than 20 paintings by him are known. Still life art always carries hidden meanings (most often along the lines of ‘in the midst of life we are in death’) and this one includes: The water and lily both refer to the Virgin Mary’s purity; and the goldfinch is often associated with Christ’s Passion and sacrifice.

Juan de Zurbarán died aged just 29, a victim of the plague epidemic that hit Seville in 1649, wiping out almost half of the city’s population.

Image: The National Gallery

Flowers in a Vase was painted in about 1685 by Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750), one of the most successful flower painters of her time. Her father was keeper of Amsterdam’s botanical garden, a centre of the booming horticultural industry, so she had first-hand knowledge of the things she painted. This bouquet carries a breath of autumn – pear blossom, peonies, honeysuckle and columbine all bloom early in spring, but the burnt orange and deep green of the lilies, the seed pod straggling over the edge of the shelf, the ripe wheat and the dry, veined leaves turn us towards autumn.

Image: The National Gallery

Still Life of Flowers in a Wan-li Vase, painted in about 1609 by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1573-1621). The gallery’s notes say: ‘Tulips, roses, jonquils, carnations, fritillaries and a single blue iris are massed into a Chinese vase; costly flowers in a costly container. Above them all, Madonna lilies rise like shining white trumpets at the peak of the bouquet, made slightly less regal by the tiny beetle making its way up a spotless petal. Other insects play hide-and-seek in the shadows made by leaves.

‘The picture was probably made to impress one of the wealthy burghers of Middelburg, the prosperous Dutch town where the artist lived .. Bosschaert’s work is more than a lovely picture. He shows individual specimens of great value and scientific interest, and the buyer and their guests would have had their magnifying glasses out to indulge themselves in the ’science of looking’.’

Image: The National Gallery

Hollyhocks and Other Flowers in a Vase by Jan van Huysum (1682-1749), painted some time in the early 18th century. Van Huysum lived in Amsterdam, the centre of culture, trade and scientific exploration – especially in horticulture. ‘He had access to the main plant nurseries in his home town and in Haarlem close by, and grew specimen flowers in his own garden. Dramatic lighting against a black background to display the new cultivated flowers in paintings was fashionable, and van Huysum became one of the most sought-after artists in the Dutch Republic.’

Image: The National Gallery

The Rosy Wealth of June was painted in 1886 by Ignace-Henri-Théodore Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), the French artist who has a lovely rose named for him. Fantin-Latour lived in Paris, but this painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1898. The gallery says it’s possible he made it while visiting his lifelong friends and patrons, Mr and Mrs Edwin Edwards, in Richmond. The couple not only bought his pictures but acted as his agents in England.

Image: The National Gallery

Bringing us almost into the 20th century is A Vase of Flowers by Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), soon after he had arrived in Tahiti for his second and final stay in 1895. Included are bougainvillea, hibiscus, frangipani and tiare (Tahitian gardenia) but it was perhaps painted from the artist’s imagination. In 1899, when a dealer asked Gauguin for some flower paintings, the artist replied he had ‘done only a few’ because ‘I do not copy nature – today even less than formerly. With me, everything happens in my exuberant imagination.’

Escher’s plants

Dutch artist M C Escher (1898-1972) is best known for his works that bend perception for the viewer but he also enjoyed depicting plant life. These images are from the exhibition of his work held in Melbourne from the end of 2018 to April 2019. The notes that go with them is the information from the exhibition. To avoid reflected light on the images, they have been taken at slightly odd angles.

The son of a Dutch engineer, Escher studied architecture, graphic design and printmaking, gaining particular expertise in woodcuts, before moving on to lithography and wood-engraving. Early in his career he focused on real subjects, including many portraits of single plants.

Pentedattilo, Calabria (Italy), 1930 (woodcut print). Photo: Sandra Simpson
Palm Tree, 1923, made during his first visit to Italy (woodcut). The palm tree is a recurring motif in Escher’s work, one he found well-suited to graphic representation. Photo: Sandra Simpson
Three Worlds, 1955 (lithograph). The image unites the world below the water’s surface (carp) with the surface itself (floating leaves) and the world above (reflected trees). Photo: Sandra Simpson
Reptiles, 1943 (lithograph) combines Escher’s interest in tessellation, cyclic repetition and spatial relationships (and there are plants!). Photo: Sandra Simpson
Blowball, 1943 (woodcut engraving, intaglio printed). There are two versions of this image, the other is a white dandelion head on a black background. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Read more about the life of M C Escher here.

What can we do?

Most New Zealanders are getting it – unless you’re an essential services worker stay at home. That does not mean going for a drive to the beach, even if you don’t get out! Take exercise in your neighbourhood and really, why wouldn’t you? It’s so pleasant without traffic. Stay 2m away from anyone not in your ‘bubble’. We often see people we know on our walks and stop and chat – social contact is important – but we all keep that 2m distance. And big thanks to the joggers who move out into the road and give us a 2m berth as we stay on the footpath. Everyone’s smiling!

While we’re being grateful … the neighbourhood is rich with tui song as they return to the big banksia trees along our block, and the dogs are quiet because their owners are home all day. I often wonder if people who own dogs and then leave the house for at least 8 hours a day, 5 days a week realise what noise polluters their pets are! (Says someone who always works at home and is surrounded by three barking dogs.)

I’ve spent the first full week of lockdown at my desk. Yes, the Escape! festival in Tauranga due to take place at Queen’s Birthday Weekend has been cancelled but the festival team has been working hard to produce an ‘arts at home’ programme for lockdown – the first step is replaying audio from the 2018 Escape!. If you couldn’t make it now’s the chance to enjoy some stimulating and fun conversations.

There will be regular posts through the week and starting next weekend we’re adding a surprise package in time for Easter starring some local arts supporters. Keep up with the conversations at the Tauranga Arts Festival website (also on social media).

Seed collected from our tasty Italian flat runner beans. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Yes, the garden awaits. The Vege Grower has been planting some seedlings, collecting bean seed for next year, and doing a bit of tidying, all the while still working fulltime from the spare bedroom. Lawnmowing Son has been mowing, trimming and weeding, and he’s working fulltime doing ungodly night-shifts at a supermarket. So I’d better up my game this week!

In fact, it’s probably never been a better time to start a vege garden or a flower garden if you don’t have one already.

Kings Seeds has put a temporary halt on orders to catch up on distribution but will open again (it’s an essential service, as are NZ Post and couriers). In their latest email newsletter owners Gerard and Barbara Martin say that from the end of March every day has been like their busiest day in spring. 

Their advice, given the warm days and cooling nights, is to sow beetroot, beets and brassica (Asian greens, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, pak choi, swede and turnip), chicory/endive, florence fennel, lettuce, mesclun, radish and spinach.

“But don’t be tempted to sow heat lovers any time soon. Beans, cucurbits (cucumber, melon, watermelon, zucchini), chillies, eggplants, peppers and tomatoes have their own special time for sowing and it is definitely not now.”

The Western Bay of Plenty Super Grans organisation has monthly vege planting and gardening advice on their blog. Read it here.

The Go Gardening website has heaps of information for New Zealanders on how to plant a vege garden, how to grow food in containers and small spaces, how to deal with pests, etc.

And Plenty Permaculture has put its Essential Gardening workshops online until further notice, with a discount for tuition. Read more here.