It’s a familiar tale — an ancient family album filled with black and white photographs, yellowed and dog-eared with age, the faces of young men and women in uniform gazing proudly from the pages.
The problem is the only people who knew them in life have long since passed away, often taking the many stories of these brave ancestors to their grave.
Now, The University of Nottingham is to offer a helping hand to people interested in finding out more about the part their family may have played in the First World War at a free community open day later this month.
Hidden Histories — First World War Family History Day will take place on University Park campus on Tuesday July 21 and will feature a range of speakers who will share their expertise and offer beginners tips and advice on how to make the best start in researching their past.
Keynote speakers for the day include:
A representative from the Imperial War Museum who will talk about the museum’s Lives of the First World War — an online resource which offers the opportunity to commemorate service men and women through a mix of official records, photographs and personal testaments
Anne-Marie Kramer, a lecturer in The University of Nottingham’s School of Sociology and Social Policy, who will speak about the development and use of family history
Professor Kurt Barling who will offer insight into the Middlesex Family History Project, which is seeking family stories and photographs of those who served in the Middlesex Regiment from their descendants
The Hidden Histories — First World War Family History Day takes place on Tuesday July 21 from 9.30am to 4.30pm in the Department of History, Lenton Grove and the Digital Humanities Centre on University Park Campus. A buffet lunch is included in the day.
The event is completely free but it is essential that those interested in attending register online beforehand.
Like many universities, Nottingham was touched by the Great War. In this guest post, Emma Thorne looks at the story of one young man whose journey took him from Nottingham to the battlefields of Europe.
For almost 100 years, the name Captain Jacob Hardy Smith has been on permanent display on the marbled corridors of the University’s Trent Building. If you’re a member of staff or a student, chances are you’ve probably walked past it countless times without ever giving it a second glance.
Jacob is one of more than 200 officers and cadets from the University who gave their lives in service to their country during the First World War and whose sacrifice is commemorated in a special memorial plaque.
His name may have endured for almost a century but until recently it appeared that the details of Jacob’s life and heroic actions during the conflict, like those of his fellow servicemen, had been largely lost to history.University’s WW1 memorial plaque
That was until a chance enquiry to the University’s Centre for Hidden Histories led to Jacob being commemorated as part of an online initiative by the Imperial War Museum.
Prudie Robins, Jacob’s great niece got in touch with Michael Noble, Community Liaison Officer at the centre after discovering that Jacob had been a member of the Officer Training Corps (OTC) at University College Nottingham in April 1909 through an entry in the London Gazette.
Prudie, who lives in Lincolnshire, had been researching her family history in an effort to shed light on the story of her great uncle — her grandmother’s youngest brother — but the details were rather sketchy. However, she had discovered that Leicestershire-born Jacob, the son of a leather merchant, had joined the OTC at the University College Nottingham while studying the chemistry of tanning.
Researching the past
Michael Noble, Community Liaison Officer at the centre, was able to confirm that Jacob had been among the members of the college’s OTC and that his name is among those on the University’s First World War memorial. Colleague Professor John Beckett has been researching the OTC at University College as part of a wider history of The University of Nottingham which he is currently writing.
Even more excitingly, the academics were able to dig up some further information through the University’s Department of Manuscripts and Special Collections. Among the records related to the OTC were documents that made mention of Jacob Hardy Smith as a former OTC ‘old boy, done good’ — he got his commission into the Connaught Rangers, a regiment with affiliations to the Rifle Brigade, in 1914 and there is reference to the medals which he was awarded later in his career.Jacob Hardy Smith
Additionally, they uncovered a photograph of the OTC around the time when Jacob was a member, led by commanding officer Sam Trotman, although they were unable to identify his face among the crowd due to the quality of the image. Michael said:
“I sent a copy of the photograph to Prudie and she was delighted that we were able to confirm that there was a record of Jacob here. This started a dialogue between us and it was nice that we were able to support her in the research she had been doing into her own family history.”
Between them, they have been able to piece together the story of Jacob’s military service, starting with his training on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent as part of the 6th Battalion. Information from the Royal Green Jackets Museum shows he later joined the 3rd Battalion and was among the first wave of soldiers to arrive on French soil, landing on 10th September 1914, just over a month after Britain declared war on Germany.
An extract from the Rifle Brigade Chronicles reveals that Jacob led an attack on German trenches on the 25th September with great courage and determination and in which the Brits suffered heavy losses. The war record from the 3rd Battalion Rifle Brigade talks of how in October, 2nd Lieutenant JH Smith was mentioned in despatches and received the Military Cross for his part in the bold capture of an enemy officer in a separate skirmish.
Jacob died in No 2 Stationary Hospital on the Somme on 29th August 1916 from serious wounds sustained through fighting two enemy officers in hand to hand combat at Guillemont — both of whom he killed — and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order medal posthumously for his meritorious service.Jacob’s medals.
In recommending him for the DSO, Jacob’s commanding Colonel wrote:
“He was the best Company Commander by far that I have seen out here. Absolutely fearless on all occasions, he was a very fine example of what an officer should be. He had trained his Company to perfection and the way in which his Company behaved, after all the officers had been hit, was entirely due to him.”
Prudie has since made a special visit to his grave in the Abbeville Communal Cemetery on the Somme and she honoured his memory by planting a ceramic poppy at the recent WW1 memorial at The Tower of London. Through her research she was even able to uncover distant cousins who she hadn’t known existed. A big moment was the discovery that they too had some cherished possessions belonging to Jacob — most notably his original medals which Prudie had feared lost.
“The research really took over my life,” she said. “It was like a giant jigsaw puzzle and it has taken me the length and breadth of the country chasing leads. I would spend hours scanning the internet before finding another potential clue and then off I’d go again.”
The Centre for Hidden Histories is part of a partnership with the Imperial War Museum, which has uploaded many thousands of records of those who served to a searchable online resource through an initiative called Lives of the First World War. The initial data was taken from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission but has now expanded to include records from other sources including the British Merchant Navy and the British Women’s Royal Air Force Service Records.
The idea behind the initiative is to preserve these old records for posterity and to champion the men and women who gave their lives during the First World War.
“It’s like Facebook for dead people,” Michael added irreverently. “You can also upload images and documents and it produces a personal timeline from birth to death. Importantly, it also encourages other people such as family members to get involved in remembering them and telling their story by uploading their own materials.”
Preserving the past for future generations
The centre has worked with the museum to promote the resource but also to test it and, with Prudie’s permission, Michael used Jacob Hardy Smith as a test case and means of exploring the effectiveness of the site.
Between them they have posted everything they could find about Jacob, including old family photographs, images of surviving artefacts belonging to Jacob including a pocket watch, an engraved silver wallet and moving letters that Jacob sent home to family from the trenches — in one he includes a touching hand drawn sketch of his dugout for his five-year-old niece Joan.Jacob’s drawing of his dugoutJacob’s pocket watch
Prudie has found the resource to be a fantastic way of ensuring that Jacob’s story is preserved for future generations of her family, while enjoying the ability to contribute to building a fuller picture of his life and gallant actions. She added:
“I would recommend this type of family research to anyone, it really has been quite an adventure. Before I began on this journey I really knew very little about my grandmother’s side of our family. Previously, Jacob had been little more than an anonymous face in a photograph and a small collection of his surviving possessions. Now I feel I know more of the man and can be proud to be a part of his family.”
If Jacob’s tale has inspired you to dig into your own family’s history, why not come along to the Centre for Hidden History’s free Family History Day on University Park campus on Tuesday July 21? The event will offer the opportunity to learn how to go about uncovering clues to your ancestry and researching your family tree. There will also be the chance for members of the public to use the University’s specialist technology to make high quality scans of their photographs and documents. Representatives of the Lives of the First World War project will be there encouraging people to use the site to remember their families.
The Derbyshire Record Office is offering a series of training sessions that are aimed at community heritage groups looking to commemorate the anniversary of the First World War. However, they are open to anyone who is interested. The sessions will be half days based at the Record Office in Matlock. They cost £3 per person, not including refreshment. If you wish to sign up for any of the training sessions, please phone the Record Office on 01629 538 347.
Paul is the longest serving Archivist in the Record Office with 15 years’ experience. He has an extensive knowledge of the collections and understanding of the legislation surrounding them, particularly the new orphan works copyright legislation.
The Copyright session will be aimed at helping you understand more about the recent changes in copyright regulations and where that leaves heritage and community groups who wish to publish images and articles, or anything else which may be under copyright. What can you do? What can’t you do? What is right and what is copyright?
Nick has a commercial background in computing, data handling and image digitisation. He has been at Picture the Past for 13 years, managing the creation of the project and overseeing the inclusion of over 114,000 searchable images to its database.
This session will provide a simple guide to what to aim for when considering scanning your images. It will include file types, resolution, output sizes and suggested scanner settings. Come and find out the best way to digitise your images to suit your purpose.
Karen Millhouse, Archivist, Derbyshire Record Office
Karen has six years’ experience as an Archivist at the Record Office, having previously served as Assistant Curator, Maritime Collections at the Maritime Museum, Liverpool.
The Research session will help you to find the information you want. It will give guidance on where to find and how to use historic records. There may be documents and sources that you have not thought about, or were not aware of. The session will help you find the information most relevant to your needs.
Karen is responsible for the Record Office community outreach programme and the collection displays in the exhibition cases at the Record Office.
Clare has six years’ experience at the Record Office and has a foot in both exhibition and conservation camps. Clare has helped Karen arrange many displays of the Record Office collections over the last two years, but her main role is as Assistant Conservator.
Lien has twenty years’ experience as an archive conservator and is responsible for the preservation of the collections at the Record Office.
The combined Exhibition and Preservation session will give you ideas for how to present an interesting and informative display based upon your photos and ephemera and will explain how to ensure that they will still be around for the bi-centenary. It will show how to make the best out of possibly limited material and resources to create an attractive and interesting display. The preservation training will ensure that you know the best way to handle and display historic items so that they do not suffer inadvertent damage. What might be harmful to the artefacts you have and what should you do to help preserve them for future generations? Find out at this informal, hands-on workshop.
18th May 9.30 – 12.45 & 1.15 – 4.30
Colin Hyde, East Midlands Oral History Archive Outreach Officer, University of Leicester
The East Midlands Oral History Archive is recognised as a leader in the subject of oral history. Colin’s involvement with oral history goes back to the original Leicester Oral History Archive which was set up in 1983. Colin advises on all aspects of oral history work. He has worked with many community organisations in Leicestershire & Rutland, giving talks, training sessions, retrieving existing oral history recordings, and encouraging and supporting new work.
The session will provide you with the skills and information you need to undertake your own oral history project within your community. What equipment do you need? What questions do you need to ask? What should you do with your recordings.
Applying for HLF ‘First World War: then and now’ funding
Glynn Wilton, Derbyshire Lives Through the First World War, Project Officer
Glynn is employed by Derbyshire Record Office to help community groups commemorate the anniversary of the First World War, from the creation of a project idea, to the application for funding.
Glynn has 30 years’ experience of working in museums, interpreting collections, creating exhibitions and applying for funding. The session will help ensure that you meet the outcomes required for a successful project, it will give you the skills to develop your idea and complete a funding application.
As the centenary of the First World War sees family history come of age Michael Noble asks, what opportunities does this offer?
Recent years have seen a revolution in family history and amateur genealogy. The possibilities created by broadband internet, the digitisation of official and parish records and the advent of crowdsourcing have created an unprecedented boom in the pursuit of private histories. The popularity of programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are? testifies to the the mainstream success of this once esoteric hobby.
During the course of our project we have encountered people who have undertaken family history research and who have gathered documents, photographs and other artefacts. They are often older members of the household who have embarked on their project in retirement and have been motivated to do so because they have a personal memory of some of the individuals concerned, assuming a combatant birth year range from the 1860s to the turn of the twentieth century. As this generation ages, we will encounter a ‘succession problem’ of what to do with such collections that are too small and/or esoteric to be absorbed into mainstream collections. A related issue is the atomised nature of these items. They reside in spare rooms, on living room walls and in attics and could be hiding information useful to professional historians.
Two key problems:
1. How do we ensure the preservation of historically valuable collections?
2. How do we give access to them to professional historians and other researchers?
These are questions for family history in general but the centenary of the war can bring it into focus. The world wars, like items such as the 1901 census, act as ‘informational nodes’ for family historians and many of their researches converge on this event. This, combined with media coverage of the centenary and crowdsourcing schemes such as Operation War Diary and Lives of the First World War, offer an opportunity to test the value of family history and a chance to make it useful to mainstream historians without, I hope, robbing it of its very real value to those individuals who have been doing so much work in this area in their free time.
We are very keen to hear from people who have found or kept interesting First World War items and who are interesting in using them to foster a better understanding of the war, its effects and of the role of memory in family history and identity. We’re planning some events for 2015 that will help to ensure that these precious items continue to be of value as the war fades into history. If you have something to share, please get in touch.
Always wanted to investigate your family’s past? This weekend might be your chance to start…
One of the most desirable outcomes of the centenary period is that people will take the time to find out more about how the war affected their family, their community and the country as whole. A particularly affecting method for doing this is to trace the records of your ancestors using genealogical tools.
Genealogy was once considered a difficult or even impossible task, requiring intrepid hunters to spend hours in dusty archives on often fruitless searches. Recent years have seen a revolution in the hobby and, with the advent of online resources, it has become easier than ever to trace your personal heritage. If you have never attempted this sort of detective work yourself, this Remembrance weekend may be the perfect chance to start.
Find My Past is one of the country’s most popular genealogy resources that provides access to 1.6 billion searchable records. A paid membership is usually required to access this material but this weekend you can do so for free.
From midday, Friday to midday on Monday, Find My Past are giving everyone the opportunity to explore record sets that include:
Millions of birth, marriage and death records
Millions of census records from all over the world
International travel and migration records
Military records, including WW1 collections
By accessing the Findmypast record sets, you’ll be able to unlock brand new information about your ancestors, allowing you to bring your past to life.