A Birmingham mystery: is this brick really 132 years old?

A Joseph Hamblet "blue brick"
Joseph Hamblet, West Bromwich, 1883

On the junction of Greenfield Road and Vivian Road in Harborne, Birmingham, some refurb work has recently taken place on what was once a furniture upholsterer’s called Connolly’s. I loved looking in the window of that shop – whether it was an old chair reupholstered in surprising new fabric, or a classic art deco sofa and armchair set, there was always something in the window that grasped my attention. But this morning, what caught my eye was this brick: is it really 132 years old?

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Poison Panic: arsenic deaths in 1840s Essex

from the Wellcome Library, London
from the Wellcome Library, London

Published on 30th June 2016.

UK: Pre-order now directly from the publisher (Pen & Sword), or Waterstones and Amazon.

USA: Pre-order from Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

I stumbled across the “poison panic” by accident, when I was transcribing one of the burial registers for Wix, and have been grimly fascinated by it ever since. I’m very pleased (and somewhat surprised) to say that I have been commissioned to write a book on this very topic.

For a few years, Essex was notorious in the minds of the Victorians as a place where women stalked the winding country lanes looking for their next victim to poison. It’s a terrible image – and also one that doesn’t seem to have much basis in truth, but it came at a time of great anxiety. The 1840s were also known as the “hungry 40s”, when crop failures pushed up food prices and there was popular unrest across Europe; the decade culminated in a cholera epidemic in which tens of thousands of people in the British Isles died.

At the time, arsenic was easily available, and used for all manner of purposes – to kill rats and mice in the home, as a fungicide for crops and in sheep-dip. It had medicinal purposes, and used in industry – famously, arsenic was used in green dye, used for clothing and furnishings. Sarah Chesham, Mary May and Hannah Southgate were three ordinary women who were caught up in the “poison panic” – all three stood trial, accused of “white powdering”. Were they guilty of murder or were they victims of circumstance?

Using newspaper reports, parish registers and censuses, this book considers the cases in detail, but also puts them within their historical context. It looks at figures such as toxicologist Alfred Swaine Taylor and eccentric amateur sleuth Reverend George Wilkins, and follows the survivors of the “poison panic” into the second half of the nineteenth century – could they ever escape the taint of arsenic?

Poison Panic will be published by Pen & Sword in 2016.

Interesting finds in West Bergholt’s parish registers

One of the pleasures of transcribing parish registers are the intriguing marginalia that turn up in them sometimes. I’m yet to find a pre-1813 parchment register that hasn’t had at least something of interest turning up in it – be it a weather report, a murder, or a runaway single mother. West Bergholt’s has some fantastic notes which slip in and give us a tantalising view of the otherwise vanished past.

A woman being burnt at the stake.
A woman being burnt at the stake.

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Exhibition reviews: “Terror & Wonder” and “Sherlock Holmes”


It was my birthday and I wanted a treat, and seeing as two quite interesting exhibitions were on in London, it seemed as good an excuse as any to wend my way temporarily down south. I decided to see Terror & Wonder: The Gothic Imagination at the British Library (open until 20th January 2015), and Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived And Will Never Die at the Museum of London (open until 12th April 2015). I’d never been to either place, so that was a bonus….

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Wills – how they’re indexed and where to find them

Snippet from the 1585 will of Margaret Starlinge of Dedham
Snippet from the 1585 will of Margaret Starlinge of Dedham. Image reproduced by courtesy of the Essex Record Office.

What? All that in one blog post? Erm… no… however, there’s been a couple of jumps forward with regards to the availability of wills and will indices recently, especially for Essex but for Suffolk in a way too, so that’s my topic for today. And because I’m a librarian who spends a lot of time trying to extract information from databases and catalogues, I want to share some of my search skills with you.

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Interview with Janice Preston, historical romance author

Detail from fashion plate "London fashions as worn December 1806"

The first book by Janice Preston, historical romance novelist, was published this summer. Mary and the Marquis tells the tale of a widow, who finds an injured man in the woods whilst travelling with her children – he just happens to be a rather handsome but grumpy and troubled marquis, fallen on hard times. There follows the discovery of their mutual love, with plenty of misunderstandings, passionate clinches, and even attempted sheep-stealing along the way! I was very impressed by Janice’s convincing historical setting, while she told a gripping tale of love and adventure with well-drawn, engaging characters. I caught up with Janice to find out more.

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Lawshall & The Gunpowder Plot


Everyone knows about Guy Fawkes, the Catholic Yorkshire man [1]Some might claim, Somerset man, but that is Robert Parsons, who came from outside Bridgwater, allegedly one of the main instigators. who was put to death with his co-conspirators for plotting to blow up the Houses of Parliament.

But did you know that the village of Lawshall in Suffolk has a connection with The Gunpowder Plot?

The Drury family & Good? Queen Bess

In amongst Lawshall’s 16th century marriages, there is a note that says:

Memor: It is to be remembered that the Queens highnesse Elizabeth, in hir progresse riding from Melford to Bury 5. Aug. Regina 20. an. Dni. 1578 prd. dined at Lawshall Hall, to the great rejoicing of ye said parish & Country thereabouts.

Elizabeth I’s progresses around the country are well-known, where she dropped in on local dignitaries and graced them with her presence for the duration of a meal, or to stay the night – it is a cliché when country houses say “And this is the room that Elizabeth I slept in.” The people of Lawshall may have felt rather lucky to have the most important person in England come for a visit – she and her entourage were given lunch by Henry Drury, who lived at Lawshall Hall.

I wondered if the locals would have commemorated this visit by naming their daughters Elizabeth. From September 1578 to 24th March 1579/80, there are twenty-seven baptisms in the Lawshall register, and almost half of them are for girls: thirteen. And how many of these girls were named Elizabeth? Most of them, you’re thinking, right?

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1 Some might claim, Somerset man, but that is Robert Parsons, who came from outside Bridgwater, allegedly one of the main instigators.

The Wivenhoe Poltergeist

Transcribing headstones at Greensted.
Transcribing headstones at Greensted.

What I’m about to write has nothing to do with genealogy, although it’s something that happened to me and a friend of mine in Wivenhoe, so it’s vaguely relevant. Of course, spending time in churchyards and cemeteries, amongst the relics of the past, does rather open you up to the sometimes-restless existence of the dead. Also, it’s Hallowe’en, which seems like as appropriate a time as any to write this, and news that Guy Lyon Playfair’s book This House is Haunted, about the Enfield poltergeist case, is being dramatised, has brought back memories which I cannot quite forget. But don’t blame me if it gives you nightmares.

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Black History Month – some finds in Wivenhoe’s register

From Wivenhoe’s baptism register, 1767. ERO ref: D/P 277/1/3

Growing up in Wivenhoe, I probably saw a greater mix of people from around the world than had I lived in a town of the same size that wasn’t anywhere near a university. When I was five years old, there were some boys in my class at Broomgrove Infants who were from Peru! Their fathers were visiting academics at the University of Essex, you see. And international students from Africa and Asia and everywhere else in between made Wivenhoe their home.

But in transcribing the parish register for Wivenhoe, it seems that the town had been the home of people from afar before. With uncanny coincidence, while transcribing the 1751-1812 baptisms and burials register during October – Black History Month – I found references to Wivenhoe residents of the past who were black.

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