The Iceberg Genealogist

GenTraveling writes: What is an Iceberg Genealogy Researcher? My definition of an IGR is someone who sits at their computer in their pajamas, only searching internet sites, and expects their family history pedigrees to fall into place. Did you know that it is estimated that less than 10% of genealogical records are online?

We are exhorted to go to where our ancestors lived. I agree that visiting local archives and finding places and things that they would recognise adds considerably to the pleasure and significance of our work as family historians, but there are some clear obstacles.

One obstacle is distance. Many are simply not able to travel to a far continent.

Another is the space-time continuum. Places change through time and so do perceptions. For example, can we really understand someone who never heard radio or never rode a bicycle? And what of those people who never travelled more than a day’s walk from their village?

I will use as an example the sad case of Mrs Elizabeth Painter, of Watling Street, Brownhills, then in Staffordshire. The Lichfield Mercury, 5 Jan 1900, covered the Inquest. Here is an extract:


Mr Frederick Jackson, grocer and baker, Watling Street, who had his arm in a sling, said he had known the deceased for about 14 years, and had been in the habit of driving her to Lichfield Market in his trap for several months past. On the 1st ult they started as usual about mid-day. Witness, his wife and deceased were in the trap. When in Bore Street, Lichfield, the horse slipped and fell on his side. Witness was thrown over the animal’s head and the other two were thrown out of the front. Witness sustained a broken wrist and other injuries, and had been attended by Dr. Maddever. Deceased complained that her wrist was sprained. Witness had his wrist set at Lichfield and deceased had her wrist bathed and bound up. The road was very slippery in Bore Street. They all returned home in the trap, which was driven by witnesses wife, who alone escaped without serious injury.

Mrs. Painter, it says, had suffered chronic bronchitis for some years, which became acute on 23 Dec and she died on Christmas Day. In the opinion of Dr. Walter Horton the shock of the accident had accelerated the illness.

The jury, foreman Mr. Thomas Bedford, returned a verdict of accidental death.

I recall the outside of the Anglesey Arms in its latter, rather rundown days, but as it was demolished when I was about eight years old I never entered, so understanding how the inquest might have been arranged is an experience that is no longer available. It should be noted that this would have been a sort of pop-up courtroom. There is an image on Brownhills Bob’s Brownhills Blog: – scroll down.

Countless times have I travelled the same route to Lichfield. Some features would perhaps be recognisable to Mrs Painter. Along the once Roman Watling Street (A5) two miles east to Muckley Corner, where the Inn still stands. Except that the road is mostly dual carriageway, with 40-tonne artics thoundering along at upwards of 40 mph. Left along the Lichfield Road (A461), past the Three Tuns public house, except that it is not a pub anymore. Over the canal and railway that are no longer there. Past the South Staffordshire Waterworks Company pumping station at Pipe Hill, at least that is unchanged on the outside.

Pipe Hill pumping station, neat Lichfield, Staffordshire.  Via Geograph, copyright Chris Allen, creative commons.

Rising above a sea of modern houses are the familiar spires of St Chad and Lichfield Cathedral. Then comes the modern traffic circulation system that diverts from the old road, but Google Earth lets you take the old line. Pass the Priory School on the right, that red-brick edifice was there, and on into Bore Street itself. Ahead the spire of St Chad still punctures the skyline. The architecture is divided by sixties shopping developments on the left and older Georgian, three-storey buildings on the right. These would be recognisable, as would the cobbled surface, though with little damage from horses’ hooves and the iron rims of cart and carriage wheels. The Guildhall and its neighbours, Donegal House and The Tudor, with its narrow alleyway, were there, too. It is not so difficult to imagine the horse slipping on wet cobbles and the passengers spilling out onto the road, and perhaps even passers-by rushing to their aid, but the modern experience of the street scene is nothing like the same.

Bore Street, Lichfield, Staffordshire, featuring Donegal House and The Tudor.  Image kindly taken and supplied by BrownhillsBob.

I guess the nearest we can get to past people-scapes is on heritage days when people put on period costume to visit heritage sites, such as steam railways or places like the Victorian Street in York’s Castle Museum or the Black Country Living Museum. Maybe you get a better feel as an actor or extra in a period drama.

Nonethless, the very fact that the owners have kept up the maintenance of these old buildings and artefacts, perhaps owing to preservation orders of one kind or another, does allow us a glimpse into the iceberg, even if visibility is limited.

E Langstone, Hardware Store, Black Country Living Museum, via Geograph, copyright Jo Turner, creative commons.

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