Provoking memories via Yeovil Library window display

Display, Anne and JohnCongratulations to Anne Warr and John Damon for producing such an eye-catching display to promote our society in the window of Yeovil Library. This is the second time we have been featured in this window; on the earlier occasion it was to introduce ourselves to Yeovil, shortly after we moved into our Broadway House headquarters.

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John and Anne prepareThe current display contains our new banners which are now pictorial so cannot get out of date in the foreseeable future, which can so easily happen if we use only words.

This time the emphasis of our display is on the messages from our past family lives that are contained within objects, whether these are on paper, in photographs, or via actual objects themselves.

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I have been a longtime believer in the messages we receive in this way from what were once everyday items that have become family treasures. The first time that I discovered this for myself was when I found out that my mother’s willow shopping basket was made by the village basketmaker in Nether Compton more than seventy years ago and this inspired me to find out more about basket making and its importance in the past and present in our area here in Somerset and Dorset.

I am especially pleased to see a sewing machine together with an example of a darning and knitting bag in the front of the window as these essentials were part of everyday life for our mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers. Look back into your own past; can you remember a sewing machine like this one in use in your family? I know I can.

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darning and knitting bagMy grandmother came south with her husband and two children as my grandfather was employed by Palmer’s shipyard on Tyneside whose closure would precipitate the Jarrow marches two years after my family arrived in Uxbridge. My grandfather was not a well man and my grandmother’s skills on a sewing machine would have helped to supplement the family finances. When my mother married one of the first things she acquired was a sewing machine and I grew up, like many, in hand-made clothes and home-knitted sweaters. I was very fortunate as I used the family sewing machine from a very early age to make dolls’ clothes and I have never looked back; at one time I too earned my living via my sewing skills.

In the box I keep of memorabilia of my mother there is a small batch of sewing patterns and the one on top is for a smocked dress that we made together for my niece in 1981, when my mother did the smocking and I made up the little dress on my sewing machine. A memory to treasure and I say thank heaven for the sewing machine both back in the day and now.


Do you have a memory of sewing, knitting and making do in your family? Please do share it here.

Barbara Elsmore

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The Greenwood Tree – September 2019

The September issue of The Greenwood Tree focuses on agricultural labourers, the ‘ag labs’ that so many of us have in our family trees, with stories on farming folk sent in by members. Editor Paul Radford previews the edition which will be mailed to members at the end of August and which SDFHS members can already view or download from the Members’ Area of the Society’s website.

The front cover shows a scene from the filming on the Mapperton Estate of the 2015 version of Far From the Madding Crowd when a realistic period set, and costumes to match, were brought in to illustrate Thomas Hardy’s great tale of rural life in Dorset.

It would have been hard to avoid reference to The Tolpuddle Martyrs, whose harsh fate revealed so much about what was happening in the countryside, in particular in Dorset, in the first part of the 19th century. Their brave protest against declining and impoverishing wages led the six men into exile but opened the eyes of so many and eventually paved the way for better conditions.

Janetta Condon delves into the notebook of Swyre schoolmaster Charles Barrett to reveal details of the working lives of the village’s ag labs and efforts to improve their conditions but does not shrink from the shady side of an existence in which smuggling and drunkenness were a standard feature.

The intriguing tale of the Somerset village of Donyatt, bought up by the county council to provide smallholdings for ex-servicemen after World War One, is told by Margery Hookings, whose two grandfathers were allocated adjoining tenancies. They were among more than 100 former soldiers with honourable service records who were settled in the village.

Haymaking at Donyatt

Most stories focus on the men who worked the fields but Bob Kelley tells the tale of ag lab widow Mary Kelley, whose husband died when she was in her 30s but who made her living with the help of one daughter for the next 45 years.

The tithe barn at West Camel where Mary Kelley might have paid her rent

Other members with ag lab ancestor stories include Elaine Spencer-White, Lara Webster, Terry Gibbs, Irene Fearnside, Jenni Phillips and Diane Brook.

There are other topics too. Jane Browning looks into letters written home by Thomas White to his Somerset siblings from the sugar plantations of British Guiana in the first part of the 19th century. David Clammer takes on an unusual facet of war as he delves into what happened to the surprising number of wives who were allowed to accompany their soldier husbands on campaign.

There are two new features. Retiring SDFHS chairman Ann-Marie Wilkinson has written the first part of what will be her regular DNA diary and John Tanner provides mystery pictures from the SDFHS Photographs Project from Dorset for readers to try to identify. In the next edition he will provide pictures from Somerset and will alternate the two counties thereafter.

A mystery photograph, possibly taken about 1912 in the Wimborne/Poole area, by Job Pottle of Minster Studio, Wimborne. Can anyone help identify the location, or any of the people?

Regular features include ‘Dorset Spotlight’, this time on Martinstown, ‘Book Reviews’, ‘What the Papers Said’ and ‘Letters to the Editor’.

Sheep-washing pool in Martinstown

December’s issue will also have a theme. This time members will be invited to send in stories and pictures of their most memorable Eureka moment in researching their family tree.

Paul Radford – Editor

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The Greenwood Tree – June 2019

The June issue of The Greenwood Tree is a Special Edition featuring wedding photos sent in by members. Editor Paul Radford previews the edition which will be mailed to members at the end of May and which SDFHS members can already view or download from the Members’ Area of the Society’s website.

coverWe asked members for wedding photos from their family history research files and they seemed to arrive in droves, many of them with intriguing stories attached. In the end we were able to publish almost 40 but only by adding four extra editorial pages and by devoting more than half of the edition to the topic.

The front cover features a modern colour photo of the oldest wedding dress we were told of. The brown silk dress was worn in 1849 by Elizabeth HUSSEY, a great-great-grandmother of Sylvia CREED-CASTLE who sent in the photo. Sylvia’s story about the bride who married Thomas HUXTER in Symondsbury, Dorset and who went on to have 18 children and more than 50 grandchildren, includes other family weddings.

One of our most senior members, 94-year-old Nelda BULLOCK, sent in photos of her own wedding in Canada in 1948, having recently celebrated a 61st anniversary, and that of her parents. She also took the opportunity of telling the story of her great-grandfather George STAPLES who came from a Somerset emigrant family to North America and who was brought up by a Sioux tribe after contracting mountain fever.

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Albert Harris marries Ada Bissex


By coincidence we had three Somerset weddings involving grandparents in which one of the couple was named HARRIS. They ended up all being long-lasting, celebrating golden, diamond and platinum anniversaries respectively.



Bob KELLEY provided the unusual story of a cakestand bought by his parents who were bakers and wedding caterers. The cakestand, which he recovered from France after it had been sold out of the family, features in a number of weddings from the 1960s to the recent past.

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Marriage of Emma Oram to Alfred Hinxman

The oldest actual wedding photo on view comes from Carolyn SCALES who sent in a family group picture featuring Emma ORAM and Alfred HINXMAN, the future mayor of Salisbury, taken in Somerset in 1892. There is an even older photo from Pamela LYDFORD of her Somerset-born great-grandfather Richard LYDFORD who married Emily DAY in 1879 before emigrating to New Zealand. However, the picture of the couple was not a wedding photo as such though it was taken at around the time of their nuptials.

mystery photo from charity shop - edited PDRWe have mystery photos, a set of pictures being offered to anyone who can identify the principal subjects and many more besides. All in all, we hope it represents a fascinating look at weddings through the years.

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Two mystery photos

Elsewhere in the journal are other interesting tales, notably the diary of Australian Ralph COLES who trekked through rural Somerset in the 1980s in a long and ultimately successful search for the birthplace and birth record of his grandfather Alfred COLES.

Regular features include ‘Somerset Spotlight’, this time on Nether Stowey, ‘Book Reviews’, ‘What the Papers Said’ and ‘Letters to the Editor’. There is also a report on the SDFHS Photographs Project which members are invited to contribute towards.


Nether Stowey Church


September’s issue will also have a theme. This time it will be on the humble Ag Lab and members will be asked to send in stories and photos of the agricultural labourers in their family tree.

Paul Radford  Editor

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Our former home in Sherborne transformed


The base for the Somerset & Dorset Family History Society was in Sherborne for nearly twenty years until the recent successful move to Yeovil. Many a visitor will have climbed up the stairs of our last home in Sherborne, to our Research Centre and meeting room, housed in the building at the bottom of Cheap Street, right next to the Conduit. There was much evidence of its former life, with old fireplaces, interesting windows and much else besides often partly hidden by the necessary bookcases, computer stations and more that were required to keep the Centre up to the mark for the many visitors it would receive over the years. If you live in, or are planning a visit to, Sherborne I urge you to have a peek inside the old building now that it has been taken over by Paula, Chris and Luis and renamed D’Urberville, where vintage finds are on sale together with a café (in our old meeting room). The entrance is now on  the other side of the building, in Half Moon Street, and the most dramatic change inside has been the removal of the ceiling above the former research room revealing views up through the rafters. Paula has a real eye for display and the items on sale are beautifully set out and complement perfectly the metamorphosis they have worked on the building. We are pleased that our old home has taken on a new lease of life, and wish them every success with their new venture.




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We have, however, left a reminder of our presence in the building with the ‘Greenwood Tree’ in the stained glass window which needed to be repaired during our tenure. The impetus gained by the transfer of the Society to a new building in Yeovil has continued apace with an increase in visitor numbers and extended opening hours, so, once you have checked out our former home in Sherborne, please do come and see us at our new home in Yeovil!


Barbara Elsmore  May 2019

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Open Day at Herrison Hospital, Dorchester

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On Sunday, 7 April 2019 the doors of Herrison Hall were thrown open to anyone with an interest in the old Herrison Hospital in Dorchester and before the exhibition was officially opened every space in the car park was taken as people seemed to be heading for the hall from all directions. We had to park some distance away and as we walked we met up with a man who was excitedly returning as he told us he had started work in the kitchen, many years ago, on leaving school. Many came with items or photographs to share but many came just with their memories and it was the sharing of these memories that set up such a buzz around the hall. Herrison Hall was originally the ballroom and was saved from demolition and replacement at the time the site was redeveloped and the new housing was added.









Map of Home Farm

The Open Day organised by Dom White and a group of ex-staff members and was attended by the Dorset History Centre, consisted of information, much of it collected and retained by individuals involved with the day to day running of the hospital, together with photographs, newspaper cuttings and much more besides. At the back of the hall was a fascinating display of items found when the building had to be cleared. These items survived thanks to the man who used to run the market garden at the hospital where he met his future wife who was a nurse. He was one of the last people left on site after the hospital closed, when they were told to throw everything out of the windows into a skip, so he started saving bits and pieces and some of these many items were on display. Apparently he has more stuff at home! I watched as the official photographer, using a light box, photographed some of these items and we both agreed that it was very fortunate now that someone had managed to retrieve all these tangible objects carrying with them their messages to us of a former time.



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The Charlton Down Local History Society was well represented and a history of the hospital and its redevelopment can be found here on the village hall website.

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Many of us, with extensive Dorset family trees, are likely to find that one or two members of our earlier family will have ended their days at the hospital and I know that I have made this discovery in the past which is why I was so keen to attend the exhibition. The Dorset History Centre is very pleased to have received a £56,000 grant from the Wellcome Trust for cataloguing and conservation of items, documentation and photographs for the hospital which should enable all the major conservation treatments to be completed and to catalogue the whole archive. Much of it will remain subject to the Data Protection and GDPR Legislation, but all the building records and staff and patient records over 100 years old will be available for local and family historians. Sophie Smith, Archives Services Officer (Cataloguing), is the project Archivist.

Barbara Elsmore April 2019

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The Greenwood Tree – March 2019

The growing importance of DNA in family history is highlighted in the March edition of The Greenwood Tree which will be mailed to members at the end of February. Editor Paul Radford previews the edition, which SDFHS members can already view or download from the Members’ Area of the Society’s website.

The front cover colour image shows the 23 inherited chromosomes in each cell of the human body, the building blocks of life. Inside are two main stories featuring the DNA theme. The first is a two-page interview with acknowledged expert in the field Debbie Kennett, an SDFHS member, who says you cannot be a serious genealogist if you do not use DNA testing as a resource in your research. In a wide-ranging interview, Debbie covers lots of ground, including the pros and cons of testing, what you can get out of it and which are the best companies to use if you want a test done.

The second is a detailed account by member Paul Whatton of the techniques he used to track down the true identity of his grandfather who went under what turned out to be an alias of John Fenton. DNA played a crucial part in unravelling his real story and the name he had been born with.

Kate Boyle explains the thoughts she had when deciding whether or not to take a test and a collection of readers tell of their own experiences with DNA testing, or of deciding they wanted nothing to do with it.

Debbie Kennett

‘Buried in the Archives’, our regular look at past issues of The Greenwood Tree, unearths an article about DNA written by Debbie Kennett in 2010 when the topic was much less in the public eye than it is now.

It is not all DNA, of course. Patricia Spencer uncovers the mystery of what happened to Dorset-born Sarah Jane Brett whom she first wrote about in 2016. Sarah Jane was twice widowed and left with four children at the age of 25 before disappearing from view. Recent research in newspaper archives revealed a whole new life for her in South Africa.

Bob Kelley tells the story of Charles Pitman, one of the Somerset railwaymen who went to work in Chesterfield in the 19th century, and Ken Isaac recounts the history of Dorset-born Ethel Gee and her role in the Portland Spy Ring.

Charles Pitman, pictured back row right, at a cousin’s wedding in Chichester

Harry Houghton and Ethel Gee

The March edition also contains regular features such as ‘Dorset Spotlight’, this time on Child Okeford, ‘What the Papers Said’, ‘Book Reviews’, ‘People, Places and Problems’ and a whole page of ‘Letters to the Editor’.

The parish church of St. Nicholas in Child Okeford

The June 2019 edition will focus on weddings, one of the three essential parts of our BMD research. Readers’ contributions, with photographs and stories, are requested.

Paul Radford – Editor

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Christmas Carol Service Train

Many of the trappings of our ‘traditional’ Christmas celebrations had their origins in the Victorian period which also saw the establishment and growth of the railway, so it is not perhaps surprising that festively decorated trains feature on a fair number of vintage Christmas cards. Today many railway lines, especially those run by local enthusiasts, have ‘Santa Specials’ where the great man joins excited children for a train ride, often pulled by a steam engine.

In Sherborne we can tell it is almost Christmas when the Carol Service train arrives in town. This an annual special excursion run by UK Railtours, which brings passengers from London Victoria for a Carol Service in Sherborne Abbey. The train arrived about 1.15pm on Thursday 20 December and, as every year, local people went to the station, or flocked to bridges on the outskirts of the town, to welcome the train and take photographs.

The 2018 Christmas Carol Service train approaching Sherborne station. Photograph: Patricia Spencer

Many of those who gather are (like me) old enough to remember when steam trains were not a special occasion novelty, but it was pleasing to see so many younger people and, especially, small children who were perhaps seeing a ‘real train’ for the first time in their lives. There really is something magical about hearing the characteristic ‘puffing’ and loud whistle as a steam engine pulls slowly into a station, enveloped in clouds of steam.

Sherborne Station, as the train pulls in. Photograph: Patricia Spencer

The beautiful steam engine which hauled the dining cars to Sherborne this year was ‘Clan Line’ and, for those who have more than a passing interest in steam engines, Graham Bendell can tell us more about her:

“Clan Line, no. 35028, is one of a class of 30 locomotives, originally built between 1941 and 1949, by the Southern Railway, to the design of O.V.S. Bullied, their chief engineer. It was one of the last to be completed, in December 1948, under the newly formed British Railways. Difficulties with the complex nature of the steamlined class resulted in them all being rebuilt between 1955 and 1959. Clan Line was one of the last to be rebuilt in October 1959, when it emerged in the form we see it today.

It was often to be seen speeding through Sherborne at the head of “The Atlantic Coast Express” until that ceased to run after 1964. After that it was more frequently seen on trains from Waterloo to Weymouth and Bournemouth. Clan Line was withdrawn from service in July 1967 but was quickly purchased by the Merchant Navy Locomotive Preservation Society who have owned it ever since. Clan Line works prestigious dining trains out of London for most of the year, but is not often seen this far west.”

Clan Line approaching Sherborne. Photograph: Graham Bendell

Passengers entering Sherborne Abbey for the Carol Service. Photograph; Patricia Spencer

After the carol service, as it is getting dark, the passengers gather on Sherborne station for their return journey to London. In 2012 Barbara Elsmore filmed the Carol Service train’s return from Yeovil Junction, hauled that year by the steam engine ‘Britannia’, and its departure for Victoria.

A very Happy Christmas and best wishes for 2019, to all our members and friends, from everyone at the Somerset & Dorset Family History Society.

Patricia Spencer and Graham Bendell

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