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Judy Rawlins began researching her family tree in 2005. As with the majority of people researching their roots, it was a personal study, but for Judy it was also an academic one.
After retiring, Judy had embarked on a degree in Landscape Studies, and one course module proved instantly fascinating: family history.
“I was a complete beginner,” she admits. “And I wasn’t optimistic I’d have any success.” But her fears were unfounded.
For Judy’s first assignment, she decided to concentrate on her paternal grandfather’s life in rural Bedfordshire, of which there were many unanswered questions. “My grandfather, Charles Rawlins, was a prosperous farmer who managed several farms and owned race horses. And yet as an old man he would show us his hands, which were scored with black marks. He told us that he got them working down the mines, looking after the ponies.”
Judy decided to find out how her grandfather had managed such a dramatic change in fortunes. Her first stop was the census records.
Judy was astonished to discover that looking at a census presented as many challenges as it did solutions. “The enumerators often made mistakes, and I also discovered the name I was researching – Rawlins – is often misspelt.”
Despite these obstacles, she discovered that Charles’ parents were Alfred and Eliza; Alfred’s occupation was ‘ag lab’ (agricultural labourer) and Eliza’s was ‘lace maker’.
From this starting point, Judy began to research the village of Blunham in Bedfordshire, which is where Charles and his family were based. It transpired that while the depression gripped the rest of Britain in the latter part of the 19th century, Blunham had managed to escape the worst ravages. “My family was living in a small geographical pocket that had fertile land, a rail connection to London and a sympathetic landowner.”
The other excitement for Judy was finding that Eliza was a lace maker. She discovered how the lace industry rose in Britain at a time when imports from France were embargoed because of the Napoleonic wars. A huge percentage of women in Blunham were working as lace makers at this time.
Judy’s interest in the period meant that not only was she discovering what had happened to her family, but she was unearthing the social history of the area too. “By using Ancestry.co.uk, I could look at one small hamlet and feel like I was turning the pages of its history book.”
Judy still hadn’t worked out how Charles had made his money, but had now discovered how his mother had supported the family. But, as Judy was to find out, this invisible workforce was to suddenly, and dramatically, disappear at the start of the 20th century.
“Machine-made lace was introduced in the 19th century, which meant those women could no longer earn. Some of them, like Eliza, went on to work on the land, which was considered shameful.”
But Eliza was made of stern stuff. Her hard work and tenacity kept the family secure until the outbreak of World War I.
The war brought about significant change for the villagers in Blunham, not least because the landowning families had to sell their estates. Hard-working men, such as Charles Rawlins, were able to buy cheap land and make a start in life. Here, finally, was Judy’s answer.
Discovering this shift in land-ownership was the last piece of the jigsaw. Her family had made the leap from ‘ag lab’ to landowner, thanks to the circumstances of World War I and the determination of a lace-maker.
Ancestry.co.uk was critical in Judy’s search for her family’s history. It offered up a huge amount of information, and was also a resource that suggested other avenues to pursue. “One great thing for me was actually visiting Blunham and going to the cemetery. I found Alfred and Eliza there. Because Alfred was illegitimate I didn’t know how old he was, but his age was on the tomb.”
She also underlines the importance of the first rule of family history – speak to as many relatives as you can. “I spoke to a cousin of mine and asked her if she realised that we were descended from lace-makers. And she said she remembered as a little girl being pacified by her grandmother with some old lace bobbins. I thought I’d made a huge family discovery but she’d known all along!”