What they did…

My friend and historian, Andrew Simpson has very kindly allowed me to guest blog on his site about the history of Chorlton-cum-Hardy. This is what I wrote for him last week:

Looking back at old records to find out about past lives is so exciting! Some people researching their family history, just seem to want dates, they want to know how far back they can trace their family… I’m not so much interested in the how-far-back, I’m more interested in trying to get a little glimpse into the lives of my ancestors.

In my novel ‘Radwinter’, a genealogical mystery, I have based the detail for what my character found out about his family tree on what you can actually find in a search of the censuses records. Census were conducted every ten years since 1841, but they are accessible on-line only up until the census of  1911. These are now quite easily available through a variety of family history web-sites. You can travel into your family’s lives without even leaving home!

In my novel, Thomas Radwinter finds that from 1851 until the end of the century, several of his fore-fathers were employed in the brick industry; making bricks, laying bricks, building with bricks, and eventually managing a brick factory. My character is a fiction but the boom in brick making really happened.

Bricks have been made for thousands of years, and made roughly in the same way, clay shaped or moulded into bricks and left to dry then baked in a kiln. From medieval times, wherever there was clay, there were brick works. These were small-scale and local, and the bricks were usually made only as and when they were needed.

My character Thomas Radwinter looks at the 1851 census returns for Bletchingley in Surrey where his ancestor was living and is amazed at the number of people who were involved in one way or another with bricks… He wonders why, and soon discovers that a new industrialised process has been discovered to make better, harder, cheaper bricks. The middle of the nineteenth century was boom time for industrialisation, and boom time for brick making. Improved transport systems including the network of canals, enabled clay to be moved about the country away from the clay pits to wherever the factory was and with the new more scientific process millions and millions of bricks were made.

I found out so much about bricks, just because of my interest in looking into family history, but that wasn’t all. Another person in Thomas’s family tree worked for an umbrella maker. I found some umbrella makers when I was researching in the census returns and I went on to look at umbrella making in the nineteenth century; the revolution for making them came when steel was used instead of whalebone, and when a way of folding an umbrella was devised by a French purse-maker…

Researching family history for me is more than just names and dates; it’s fascinating to imagine people’s lives before ours, whether they were in the brick industry or worked in an umbrella factory. This for me is where a family tree really bears fruit!


If you are interested in reading my novel, Radwinter, you can find it here:



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