Gone ‘opping

During the 1930s/40s, in the East End of London and Essex suburbs, my family lived just above the breadline.  Holidays by the coast were an inconceivable dream, but they did manage to escape the smoke and grime of the overcrowded streets by going ‘Hopping’.

The women and children would pack up for the summer, leaving the men behind to work.  My Nan (Jennie Louisa Perkins) would be joined by her younger sister Lil, her mother (also Jennie), her aunts Lena, Joyce, Rosie and Lizzie; and her grandmother (my great great grandmother) Nanny Lee.  She remembers many of her cousins too, but there are too many to mention here!

‘Hopping boxes’ would be filled with clothing, cooking utensils and provisions, and would later double-up as tables.  Nan remembers they would each have a palliasse to sleep on – a sort of sack that they filled with straw (which sounds awfully scratchy and uncomfortable).

The Kentish farms weren’t too far away, so the men regularly joined the families at weekends.  Uncle Bert (aunt Lizzie’s husband) used a work’s van to transport the gang down on a Friday night or Saturday morning. 

Someone might have an accordion, another might play the mouth organ, and they’d all have a good old sing-song.

Every year, Nanny Lee (centre of picture above) would choose which farm the family would visit for the working-holiday; often changing locations for better money or conditions.  However, most hopping farms had a similar layout – a cook hut, surrounded by several hopping huts.  The cook hut usually had some sort of cooking facilities, but mostly the families would cook on camp fires.  There would be huge hopping pots for stews and boiling water, and my Nan remembers cooking potatoes, wrapped in foil, on the edge of the fire amongst the embers.

‘Lousy Hoppers’ were often looked down upon for being poor, yet my Nan loved it.  Hopping was hard work, but being together with her family, in the fresh air, was wonderful.  You would have to pull the hops off the vines, and drop them into a ‘bin’ – a canvas bag that was held by two long poles crossed at each end with shorter poles.  The tally-man would use a bushel basket to count how much you’d picked, and you’d get paid by the bushel.

Courtesy of Kent Archives

In the evenings, the children would go scrumping in local fields, trying not to giggle whilst hiding from the gamekeeper.  Nan reminisces how she would always keep the largest apple to take back home to her teacher.

When the men arrived at the weekend, they would frequently hold a dance in an empty barn.  Someone might have an accordion, another might play the mouth organ, and they’d all have a good old sing-song.

I’m not too sure my sons would have the same delighted reaction if I told them we were going on a working-holiday, but Nan’s stories of her hopping days always sound wonderful to me.

Many thanks to Kent Archives for the use of their image of the Hopping Postcard. You can read more about the history of hopping in Kent in their fantastic article here https://www.kentarchives.org.uk/hops-in-kent/

Another World

I’m very fortunate to have both my Nans still alive today.  I love talking to them about their early years, and I’m constantly curious to hear about the lives that seem very different to the one I’ve known. One particular story I am always happy to hear my paternal nan retell, is about her moving to a new home.

She’d never seen anything like it, it was utterly breathtaking.’  ‘…had they suddenly become Royalty?’

Jennie Louisa Perkins (my paternal grandmother) spent the first few years of her life in ‘rooms’ in Bethnal Green.  She, her parents and baby sister lived on the top floor of a three-storey house.  They had two rooms – the main living room (which served as a kitchen/lounge/dining room) and a bedroom.  The bedroom had two beds, one for the parents, and one for the two sisters to share.  There was no bathroom.  A galvanized iron bath hung on a nail in the main room, and was used to wash the laundry……..and the family.  The ‘privy’ was outside in the yard, and was shared by all the residents in the property.  There was no running water; Nan remembers her mother (my great grandmother) carrying a large white enamel jug downstairs to the outside tap, heaving it up and down the stairs to refill several times a day.

In January 1934, when Nan was around 5 years old, the family moved from Bethnal Green to Becontree.  She remembers vividly, walking into her new home for the first time.  It was like a palace!  She’d never seen anything like it, it was utterly breathtaking.   There were electric lights, and Nan remembers being able to turn them on and off ‘like magic’ via a switch on the wall.  Taps in the kitchen had not just cold, but also HOT running water!  It was so posh!  The enamel bath in the kitchen, had a copper at one end (used for boiling water).  Her father covered the bath with a wooden board, so it could function as a worktop when not in use.  They even had a garden!  In Bethnal Green, they’d shared a small, paved yard.  In Becontree, my great grandfather grew vegetables and kept rabbits (to eat of course).  Nan recalls how everything was brand new, even the local school.  Reminiscing, she laughs at a thought she’d had at the time, ‘had they suddenly become royalty?’.

Photo from Historic England Archive. Part of Becontree Estate under construction in 1927.

I asked Nan if it was lonely being in a new town, and whether she had missed her friends from Bethnal Green, but she replied no.  Many family members and old neighbours had also moved out to Essex; her mother’s friend ‘Aunt’ Lou and her two daughters (Lou-Lou and Rosie), had moved to Becontree too.  It was like a home from home.  She describes the houses as being in a ‘banjo’ layout; they had their own sort of micro-community where everyone looked out for each other.  My great grandmother ran a kind of savings club.  She would collect money from each household every week, then a name would be pulled out of a hat.  The lady whose name had been picked, received the money-pot for that week.  The lady’s name would then be discarded so she wasn’t picked again, ensuring everybody had their turn in ‘winning’.  Nan says that this money was often used to buy new clothes/shoes for the children.

Jennie Louisa Perkins circa 1938

Nan’s ‘palace’ in Becontree seems basic compared to my childhood home – with a fridge-freezer, vacuum cleaner and television; but it’s all relative isn’t it? My great great grandmother Eliza would have thought Nan’s simple rooms in Bethnal Green were luxurious!  After Eliza’s parents died of TB, she and her siblings were sent to an orphanage. Privacy was unheard of, so the idea of a bedroom for just four, or a dip in a galvanized bath in her own personal kitchen, would have been a dream.  I wonder what she would think of my life today, with the world at the touch of my fingertips?

Science and technology has progressed exponentially in the last hundred years, creating another world that would be unimagineable to our forebears. But like many of you, I owe much credit for all the things I have today to my ancestors. Each generation in my family worked hard, fought and strived to make a better life for the next, for which I will be eternally grateful.

Huge thanks go to Colin Pickett for use of the photo of the Becontree Bus (circa 1934).

The ABCs of Genealogy

Who, at some point, has hit a brick-wall in their research?  I know I have, many a time!  It’s in these situations that I have to remind myself to go back to basics.

We all have our own methods of research, some log all their findings in electronic spreadsheets, some prefer good ol’ fashioned pen and paper.  Some take the disciplined approach of a step-by-step research plan, some (like myself) are easily distracted and lose time down rabbit holes.  But any good family historian will follow the fundamental groundwork, that I like to call my ABCs.

A is for ASCERTAIN – Listen to stories.  Speak with relatives, ask questions, get an idea of the people in your family tree and WRITE THINGS DOWN! (or record conversations – with permission of course).  Determine who you are going to concentrate on, including their immediate family.  Draw a chart to make it easier to view relationships.  Make sure you include every little detail, no matter how vague; there are often threads of truth in even the most inaccurate family tales.

B is for BACK-UP – Do some research.  Get evidence to confirm (or even disprove) what you’ve been told.  Record your findings, and catalogue all records/sources you examine.  We’ve all made the mistake of not recording negative searches, and then wasted time repeating work when we go over the same source at a later date.

C is for CORROBORATE – Locate more documents to confirm what you’ve discovered, to prove you have the correct individual.  There are many people with the same name, maybe with a spouse/child/parent of the same name, and sometimes even in the same place!!  Naming patterns throughout history meant that offspring were often named after parents/aunts/uncles/grandparents, so it is quite common for cousins to be born around the same time, with the same name, in the same parish.  So make sure you are using documents that are relevant to the specific individual you are focusing on.  Don’t forget to cite all the records you use.

This strategy is something we use in our everyday research; but by going over these steps again from scratch, we might spot something we missed or even come across new information that wasn’t there before.  Perhaps talking with relatives and asking questions jogs a memory, or maybe a record has been catalogued and/or digitised since we first searched.  There might not have been a corroborating document to confirm our initial findings, but now we might discover something that reveals our first record was for the wrong person. 

On the rare occasion this method is not effective in solving a mystery, I pause my examination of that certain individual, and focus on somebody else in the family (and yes – you’ve got it – perform ABCs on this person too).  Sometimes, the new study sheds light on the first individual, and I’m able to smash a brick wall.

So next time you’re faced with a challenge in your research, take a moment to consider the ABCs.

New Tricks

Over the last few years, I’d been pondering the place of DNA within the genealogy world.  I can appreciate why many people are fascinated with examining their ethnicity, but it’s never really interested me much.  However, I kept hearing more and more about DNA being used to assist family history research. 

It can be quite daunting learning something new, but I was determined to increase my knowledge of this unknown world.

Two years ago I thought I’d dip my toe in – have a look at what all the fuss was about – then I wished I hadn’t!  Terminology such as centimorgans, clustering, triangulation and chromosome browsers terrified me, so I shied away from it.

During the first UK lockdown, when curiosity in ancestry boomed, I had several people contact me asking for help in deciphering their results.  I did the ethical thing and recommended experts in the field of genetic genealogy, who were experienced in this type of work.  Then, a couple of my closest friends asked if I would take a look at their DNA.  I explained that I really didn’t know what I was doing, but they were happy for me to play with their cousin matches to familiarise myself.

After a while, the DNA jargon seemed less scary, but I still felt like I was going round in circles.  So, a couple of months ago, I decided to do something about it.  I signed up for a DNA Bootcamp, hosted by Family Tree Magazine, and taught by one of the best in the field – Michelle Leonard.  I needed to get a grip, and understand the differences between such things as Mitochondrial and Autosomal. It can be quite daunting learning something new, but I was determined to increase my knowledge of this unknown world.

After the first week I already felt more confident, and armed with this new sense of comprehension I suggested that my friends upload their test data to other sites (obviously after they had read and agreed to each site’s terms).  By week 2, I was clustering matches, and then the obsession was in full-force.

Recently, DNA helped me break a brick wall in a case where someone had used an alias.  Traditional methods had repeatedly led to dead-ends because the name we had, simply didn’t exist.  There’s no way documents such as birth/death certificates could ever have been found (and used to connect other facts), if it was not for DNA.

I now strongly believe that DNA is an asset to any genealogist.  Just like we combine different traditional sources to corroborate details in our research, DNA can be used to confirm relationships and highlight potential paths of investigation.

So if you haven’t delved into DNA yet, I urge you to try it. You’re never too old to learn new tricks – If I can do it, anyone can!

Chance Encounters of the Past Generations

Growing up, I was surrounded with tales of yesteryear. I have a large extended family: my paternal grandfather was the eldest of 10, my father was his eldest, and I am the eldest of my siblings too.  There are many cousins, lots more 1st cousins once removed (several of which are around my age), and we are all very close.

There were frequent family gatherings, where I would listen, enthralled, to elders reminiscing; enchanted by anecdotes probably remembered through rose-coloured spectacles.  I loved hearing how they’d lived, such a different world from the one I knew, but most of all – I loved learning how couples met.

I frequently marvel

at the fact of my being. 

How my existence was all

a matter of chance.

Take my grandparents for example.  Jennie Perkins and George Gray had both been to the pictures, separately, with a friend.  Afterwards, they popped in to a café for refreshments.  Jennie’s friend Whinnie Boyton knew George’s friend, and it wasn’t long before the four started chatting.  My grandfather, being the gentleman that he was, offered to walk my nan home.  She doesn’t remember who asked who, but they planned to meet again.

However, their first date almost didn’t happen.  George Gray was employed at Toleman’s in Dagenham, Essex, and had to work late unexpectedly.  Rather than stand Jennie up, he sent a message home to his mum, asking her to meet Jennie in his place.  George’s mother Alice (my great Nanny Gray) agreed, and greeted Jennie outside the Mayfair Cinema. She explained that George had to stay late at work, and asked if they could possibly reschedule their date.  Impressed by his consideration, and the effort he had gone to not to leave her stranded, Jennie agreed.

My maternal grandparents had a serendipitous start too.  They both worked at the Trebor factory in Forest Gate.  Harry Perry pulled toffee, and Betty Bush cooled the slabs.

Harry was a shy young man, and Betty was rather stern looking (although has the kindest heart).  Harry’s friend and colleague dared him to ask Betty out on a date; he even bet Harry wouldn’t have the nerve.  But feeling emboldened, Harry picked up the gauntlet and asked Betty if she’d accompany him to the pictures. Betty wasn’t sure.  Harry was rather quiet, and of slight build – she wondered at the time how he even managed to walk in the heavy work boots he wore, as they probably weighed more than him! But she decided to take a chance as he seemed kind, and was ever so polite.

The rest, they say, is history.  But what if George hadn’t been so considerate?  What if Jennie didn’t agree to reschedule their date?  What if Harry hadn’t had the nerve, or Betty didn’t take a chance on the shy boy? I frequently marvel at the fact of my being. How my existence was all a matter of chance.

We are all the result of ‘sliding doors’ moments, of our ancestors’ choices, and we could wonder infinitely about ‘what if’s’. But I’m fascinated more with the stories connected to these chance encounters – the real lives of my ancestors; and whilst I may never know the emotions felt by some during their courtship, I am lucky enough to be able to question those who are still with me.  I will record their romantic sentiments so that my descendants may one day understand, and perhaps catch a glimpse of their ancestors’ personalities.

Incidentally, at their Golden Wedding anniversary celebrations in 2001, Harry Perry announced in his speech that after being married to Betty for 50 years, he still hadn’t received the money from his friend for winning the bet!