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Book Reviews - Biography & Family

cover for Norton of Everest

Norton of Everest, The Biography of E.F. Norton, soldier and mountaineer by Hugh Norton

Published by: Vertebrate Publishing
Price £12.99

I asked to review this book as it was a biography and hoped it would lead to some tips and ideas on how to write family history. I have no interest in mountaineering nor military history and so was slightly apprehensive when I started reading. But I was very pleasantly surprised and can recommend the book whole heartedly.

Hugh Norton, the son of Edward Felix (Teddy) Norton, the subject of the biography, writes very clearly of his father’s whole life, not just his mountaineering accomplishments on Everest. In doing so, he brings his father to life, showing the reader Teddy’s personality, his likes and dislikes, and his most of all his values. The story of E F Norton covers the early 20th century and the turmoil brought by war and foreign policy. But the book doesn’t become bogged down with a technical and military history of First World War battles; nor does it get bogged down with the policies of overseas government of the British Commonwealth of the time. It is a very personal account of one man’s life in the Army, with a side story of his climbs on Everest.

The book is very easy to read and I did so in only a couple of days. The descriptions allowed me to picture the places E F Norton lived and his struggles in the very harsh world of Mount Everest. The photographs, sketches and quotations served to illustrate the commentary and ultimately to show an unbiased view of the man.

The book is not a series of antidotes used to amuse the reader, but a proper life history. Although, some family stories have been included to lighten the atmosphere and ensure the story is not just a list of places and dates. As a biography, this is a well thought out book, enjoyable and worth reading.

Reviewed by Sue Steel

July 2017

From Sailing Ships to Spitfires by Shirley Walker

Published by Borealis Press Ltd, 8 Mohawk Crescent, Ottawa K2H 7G6
ISBN: 0-88887-287-9

This is a well written, well researched and readable book. It is the story of Norwegian brothers Gustav and Olav Roseland and their families and descendants. It tells of their early days at the end of the 19th century on the family farm in Norway, of Gustav’s travels working on sailing ships, their emigration to the United States with the aim of making a good living and then returning to Norway. After failure in America they moved to Canada where life was no better until the 1940s. Although Olav did, Gustav never returned to his Homeland.

The book is arranged in five parts, Life in Norway to 1904, Life in America 1904-11, Life in Canada 1912-27, Life in the great depression in Canada 1927-39 and Life in the Royal Canadian Air Force in World War 2 1940-45.

Each of the well-presented chapters details the life of the family members and tells of their efforts to make a success of the move to the USA, as well as their hopes and aspirations. The story relates the successes and the subsequently dashed hopes, the crushing hard work and grinding poverty which they experienced and tells why irrepressibly they were prepared to move on to try again after each failure.

After moving to Canada and establishing a farm with a small degree of success, after two years of economic failure, in 1927 they, in common with hundreds of others, simply had to walk away from their home and livelihood. There is a poignant picture taken in 2000 of the abandoned house still standing.

The title of part 4 ‘We thought it couldn’t get worse’ tells of their settlement in the nearby town of Okotoks, Life here was no easier especially when the family was hit the scourge of TB in the 1930 and jobs were no easier to find.

The poems written by family members whilst in the TB sanatorium are evidence of the family’s spirit and determination.

The last part deals with the experience of Gustav’s son with the RCAF in WW2 and his death in action.

The one thing which is missing and would help the reader, is a family tree.

Although none of the characters have any UK connection this is still a book which has plenty to interest the British genealogist.

Reviewed by John Treby, Member of Devon FHS, Gloucestershire FHS and East of London FHS

June 2017

cover for Men of Song

Men of Song by Jeff Campbell

Privately published.
The book can be purchased direct from the author at a cost of £11.00 (inc. P & P):
Jeff Campbell, 12 Fawns Close, Ermington, Ivybridge, Devon PL21 9NB
Telephone 01548831559
Enquiries: menofsong2016@gmail.com

This is an enthusiast’s book. The author is a champion of Male Voice Choirs (MVC) and it is appropriate to be reviewing it when ensemble singing is, via TV and Gareth Malone, enjoying such popularity.

The author sums up his book in one sentence; ‘ I belong to a male Voice Choir and this is my story’. What follows is something of a pot pourri but is unified by his personality and his obsession (as outsiders would see it ) with MVCs.

The first half is an informal mixture of autobiography, jokes and MVC history (including autobiographies of each member of the Tamar Valley Choir – the author’s own). This section is disarmingly unpretentious; the only reservation your reviewer would have is that some paragraphs are printed in a feint Italic typeface – not an attractive or easily readable format. His own autobiography includes details of his family with a touching account of his granddaughter, Skye, ‘ who was born with Down’s Syndrome’.

The second half is a Directory of British MVCs arranged by country and county. There is also a list of Police Choirs. Each entry has a potted history (but unfortunately no contact details) which varies from several pages to a couple of lines.

It’s an intriguing glimpse into another, musical, world which is presented with simplicity and affection.

Reviewed by Charles Kaye

November 2016

cover for The Barque of Bulleyn

The Barque of Bulleyn by K C Isted

Published by: Conrad Press
ISBN: 978-1-78301-919-9
Price £11.99 (Also available in Kindle format from Amazon.co.uk priced at £2.99)

This is a fast paced swashbuckling story of one of the author’s ancestors and a vessel he purchased. It is an entertaining book based on real life events with real life characters.

The story centres on the activities, legal and otherwise of Privateer Robert Isted and his crew in 1574 when Queen Elizabeth 1 was on the throne. England and Spain were at war and part of Holland was allied to Spain and part to Britain The action takes place between Hastings, the North Sea and Scotland.

The story is well researched and has well defined characters. The events are easy to understand.

Without giving away the plot we know that most pirates came to a sticky end and whether Robert Isted did is something to be discovered when the book is read.

A great way to present part of your family history.

Reviewed by John Treby, Member of Devon FHS, Gloucestershire FHS and East of London FHS

October 2016

cover for Our Cousin

“He is our cousin, Cousin”: A Quaker family’s history from 1660 to the present day by Antony Barlow

Published by: Quacks Books
ISBN: 978-1-904446-60-6
Price £15.00

Antony Barlow has a long, interesting and important Quaker pedigree. He seeks to chronicle ‘this Quaker family’s history to inspire future generations with what it is possible to achieve when we listen to voices of the past’. He describes the book as not only a personal family history but also a history of the Society. It tells of the life, traditions and expectations he knew as part of this extended family.  There are influential stalwarts of the Society at national and international levels from the beginning of Quakerism right up to current times. The influence of Quaker boarding schools and philanthropy in cementing ideals and forging relationships is paramount.

The first quarter of the book acts as a backdrop of colourful ancestral Quaker cameos leading the reader to the more recent players in the family’s history. The 284 page book has 10 pages of family trees, copious black and white photographs as well as illustrations throughout. The photographs are not always of the best quality, but they cover a vast range of family members and each has a story to tell.

The book will be of special interest to anyone with Quakers in their family for its early histories, Quaker Connectivity, Quaker and Bournville social philanthropic and business life.  As such funds from the Quaker Family History Society Small Research Award 2014 were given towards the production of the book.  The book goes towards fulfilling Antony’s role as a torch bearer for future generations not just in the family or Quakers. May it encourage QFHS members and other family historians to follow suit!

Reviewed by Margaret Page of the Quaker Family History Society

June 2015

cover for One House

The History and Hulley Families of the One House of Rainow near Macclesfield, Cheshire by Ray Hulley

Published by: Longview Publishing
ISBN: 0954031415
Price £7.95 plus postage (free to UK)

Ray Hulley has done a terrific job in collecting, assembling and writing up the histories of not just the One House of Rainow (Cheshire) but of tracing the Hulley name (in all its variants) around the North of England, especially Ashton under Lyne and the huge Macclesfield Forrest area.

The History and Hulley Families of the One House of Rainow is a revised and expanded second-edition of his 2001 monograph. This revised edition contains 86 pages of detailed research (the first edition of 2001 contained 57 pages). Clearly it was an on-going project and whilst Ray admits there is no evidence to connect his kin with the One House Hulley family (p.45) he persevered in outlining the Hulley One House family tree from 1490 to the present day (One House was demolished in August 1939).

The book is structured on six chronological chapters and ten Appendices. There is an extensive index and fifty-four illustrations (some in colour). The book also contains a list of previously published articles by Ray dating from 1990 to 2013.

The story of One House begins with references to it (as ‘an ancient stone mansion in Rainow’) in a charter of 1166 and ends with its demolition in 1939. Full credit to Ray Hulley for producing this fascinating history of One House and the folk who inhabited it. The scholarship and research which created it are remarkable. Ray is a Fellow of the Manchester and Lancashire Family History Society and he has been a family historian for over 30 years and he deserves a glitzy commendation for all the time and patience (and, aye, money) he has put into this project.

The book deserves to be read not just for its content and style but for the sheer passion its author brings to the study.

Reviewed by David Gilligan – North Cheshire FHS

May 2015

cover for Jane Austen's England

The Housekeeper's Tale by Tessa Boase

Published by: Aurum Press Ltd, London
ISBN: 9781 78131 043 4
Price £20.00 (£16.10 from Amazon at time of writing)

This book consists of five main stories presenting housekeepers, their employers and work. Each case has been fully researched and the social circumstances discussed in an even handed manner. Tessa Boase's writing brings these characters to life with well observed detail. Here the stories are told as presented by the record with social history adding context. The examples are chosen to show a wide history from Dorothy Doar working for Lady Stafford at Trenthem Hall, Stafford to Charleston, Sussex where Grace Higgens worked for Vanessa Bell of Bloomsbury group fame.

The research for this book has not been skimped. Boase's writing highlights the joy of using old records and bundles of letters in archives. Where the records are lacking, reasoned argument is used to complete the story. Family scrap-books and albums play their part and living relatives also contribute. Where there is no evidence, the unanswered question is presented.  Even H.G. Wells contributes to the story of Sarah his mother, who worked for Miss Fetherstonhaugh at Uppark, Sussex. For the family historian this book is a brilliant example of how to present the lives of these women and gives great insight to social life within a large country house.

The stories well are chosen for themes within a housekeeper's life, keeping the house prepared, appointing and managing servants, devotion to duty and eventual loss of their own jobs. The housekeeper's position is a difficult, between upstairs family and downstairs service. The case of Ellen Penketh at Erddig Hall shows another problem, managing the accounts. The First World War changed the role of a housekeeper like Hannah Mackenzie when Wrest Park, Bedfordshire became a hospital.

The epilogue compares the life of a modern housekeeper to highlight the themes. This book is a fascinating read and a great contribution to understanding the social history of domestic service in Victorian, Edwardian and modern times. Highly recommended. 

Reviewed by Tony Sargeant – Buckinghamshire FHS

February 2015

cover for I Survived the Titanic

THe Loss of The Titanic : I Survived the Titanic
by Lawrence Beesley

Republished by Amberley Publishing
ISBN 978 1 4456 1383 3
Price £9.99

Last year's centenary commemoration of the Titanic disaster saw two new museums opened (in Southampton and Belfast) and a shoal of publications, including the re-issue of this classic account of the voyage by a survivor.  Lawrence Beesley was a schoolteacher in his 30s on his way to meet his brother in Toronto.  He was a second class passenger and was one of the fortunate ones who got on board a lifeboat and was rescued by the Carpathia.  He started to write this book on board that vessel, completed it within weeks and it was published in 1912.  He was an alert and keen observer and gathered eyewitness accounts from fellow survivors.  It is a thoughtful and balanced narrative which avoids the sensational.  There is anger about the mistakes he describes as contributing to the sinking and loss of life but his tone is always restrained and rational.  He is particularly interesting when he describes the atmosphere surrounding the abandonment of the ship :

".... the principal fact that stands out is the almost entire absence of any expressions of fear or alarm on the part of passengers"

His detailed account of the collision with the iceberg (almost imperceptible in his cabin) and of the following events is graphic and still holds the attention today.  He was not right in every particular but undoubtedly his is a convincing story.

This edition is enhanced by a generous selection of illustrations, mainly related to the ship but including some of the author.  It also includes a very useful preface, written in 2011 by Beesley's grandson, which fleshes out the portrait of the man himself, who comes across as a fascinating, if unconventional, individual.  All in all, a book well worth reading!

Reviewed by Charles Kaye

July 2013

cover of Richard III

Richard III - by David Baldwin

Published by Amberley 2013
ISBN: 978-1445615912
Price: £9.99

History does not get much bigger than Richard III. Whether he was a 'good lord' or 'Machiavellian villain' we will never know for certain, but the discovery of skeletal remains under a Leicester car park and detailed investigation proving 'beyond reasonable doubt' that the remains were of King Richard III has made the story of his meteoric rise and fall incredibly topical and very interesting.

David Baldwin's book is as mesmerizing as Richard himself and while the author aims "to offer a fairer, more balanced, portrait of him than some others" (p.12) there is no doubt that the Richard III of Baldwin's biography is less of a baddie and more a pragmatic man of his time.

Baldwin tells us that Richard III 'is an enigma'; born Richard Plantegenet he was King of England for just two years (from 1483 until his death in 1485 in the Battle of Bosworth Field) and he was the last king of the House of York and the last of the Plantagenet dynasty. His defeat at Bosworth Field - the decisive battle of the Wars of the Roses, is sometimes regarded as the end of the Middle Ages in England. Understanding this complex period of English history is absolutely crucial to understanding the narrative of English history. David Baldwin is inspired in this respect: his prose flows like a gently running brook. The twists and turns of the plots, counter-plots and conspiracies are explained in a crystal clear manner so much so that any general reader can easily understand them.

The book was first published in 2012. This new edition is basically that book with a supplementary chapter. As an interesting aside it should be pointed out that David Baldwin was the one who indicated where the remains of Richard III would be found.

The Book is lavishly illustrated with 81 pictures - 57 of which are in full colour. It is well researched, well written and well argued. The book also has a fine index as well as twenty pages of notes and references and a good bibliography.

I'm really pleased I was asked to review this book and I cannot praise it enough: it is to be highly recommended.

Reviewed by David Gilligan member of North Cheshire FHS

March 2013

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The Victorian Elliots in Peace and War by John Evans

Published by Amberley Publishing 2012

ISBN: 978-1-4456-0507-4
Price: £25.00

Subtitled Lord and Lady Minto, Their Family and Household between 1816 and 1901, this is a meticulously researched volume (351pp) detailing the lives of the Elliots, a large aristocratic family based in Roxburghshire, Scotland. The family descends from a line of successful lawyers, politicians and diplomats, a number of whom held important national offices. This book is based largely on original research focusing on George Elliot, second Earl of Minto, his wife Mary and their 10 children, and on Catherine Rutherford for 5 years governess to the younger children. Lord Minto was a Whig politician, with his five sons respectively a diplomat, MP, soldier, sailor and lawyer. One daughter married Lord John Russell, future British prime minister (and was influential grandmother to the philosopher, Bertram Russell). Like their peers, the family spent time on their estate near Hawick in the Scottish borders, in houses in London and the Home Counties, and in the many countries where family members were based because of roles as diplomats, military leaders and colonial administrators.

The book blends domestic details with personal perspectives on lives spent in key political and administrative positions around the globe. It is structured around an introduction outlining the lives of the main characters, followed by individual chapters on each and an epilogue covering the decline of the family’s fortunes in the 20th century. There are comprehensive chapter notes, photos, and bibliography and an extensive index.  

For genealogists, probably the most useful chapter describes life on the Minto estate in the 1830s and includes lists of tenants and details of contemporary estate management. The individual perspective occasionally casts a somewhat prosaic light on moments of national importance  but also provides evocative insights into Victorian social history (continental travel details, domestic arrangements and upper-class budgets) and some intriguing anecdotes (Queen Victoria sending for Lord John Russell in Edinburgh to attend her immediately on the Isle of Wight).

Reviewed by Karin Thompson, member of Wiltshire FHS and the Highland FHS.

7 February 2013

 

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