Meeting the everyday detectives at Bromley Local Studies and Archives

News Shopper: A lantern slide from the Victorian era A lantern slide from the Victorian era

Have you ever wondered about the skeletons rattling around in your family’s closet? Reporter HELOISE WOOD took a trip to Bromley Local Studies and Archives department to learn more.

ILLEGITIMACY, workhouses and orphanages are just some of the things the archivists are tasked with researching on a daily basis.

As I’m given a tour of the department in Bromley Central Library, I see volunteers peering over magnifying glasses interpreting lantern slides used in Victorian picture shows and visitors pouring over dog-eared records.

"Staff are always on hand to give people assistance with their research, whatever the subject."

There are Ornance Survey maps, records of births, marriages and deaths, thousands of historicphotographs and an ancestry subscription, a web service which helps people access records.

Archivist Catrin Holland, who has worked in the department for two years, said: "Often history is taught in a dull way so it’s great when we can help people learn how interesting it can be - we all have history.

"People we talk to help us as well by filling in the gaps.

"Recently we showed a 1930s film of an orphanage in Penge and someone pointed to the screen and said, ‘That’s my cousin.’

"The audience members helped us work out who we think the film-maker was, whereas before it was a mystery."

Customer Services Assistant Suzanne North said: "It’s all about helping people become enthusiastic about history, that’s the best part of the job.

"People can be surprised and sometimes emotional at what they find out about their family history.

"One lady was very upset because she found out her great-great grandmother was illegitimate but I tell people you can’t judge them by today’s morality.

"You have to look at it with different eyes.

"We have four or five people coming in each day to trace their family history and some of them are regulars.

"One, for example, is an unsung hero of the gipsy history community and another woman just loves helping people trace their ancestors.

"One of the things I like is the range of people you get in. We recently had two 11-year-old pupils from Bullers Wood School as well as academics."

Stuart Valentine, of Kent House Road, Beckenham, regularly goes to the archives and helps other residents trace their family trees.

The 70-year-old former economist began researching the work houses in Bromley with his late wife and became fascinated with one particular person whose name kept popping up - Amelia Dolding.

He said: "It is a tragic case. She was in and out of the workhouse more than the Oxford and Cambridge boat race.

"Amelia was born in East India in 1839, married at 14 to a boot-maker 16 years her senior.

"She gave birth to one child while on a ship going to England and ended up going into the Bromley Union Workhouse at least 24 times.

"Archives are important because people say you can trace people’s histories on the web alone, this is nonsense.

"Only around five per cent of the available information is online, records are really helpful and the staff can help you."                                                                 

Yvonne Auld, 66, of Merchland Road, Greenwich, said: “My book on Chislehurst in the Great War would not have been possible without the library's contemporary local newspapers on film which are absolutely fascinating and quite different to local newspapers today.”

Mr Valentine runs a one-to-one family history session at Beckenham Library once a month. For more information, contact stuartvalentine@live.co.uk

A 1930s Bromley on Film session is being presented by Ms Holland on March 19 at the Central Library. Call 020 8461 7170 or email localstudies.library@bromley.gov.uk

Five top tips for beginner family historians from the archives staff

1. Start by asking family members what they know but take their stories with a pinch of salt then write everything down in one place.

2. Begin researching with one of the online family history resources -  you can get free access from your local Library.

3. Concentrate on one thing at a time, set yourself boundaries and try not to go off on a tangent.

4. Use various sources together, e.g. census, birth-marriage-death records, parish registers; one source alone may lead you the wrong way.

5. Visit Bromley Local Studies and Archives to see local records that aren’t on the internet and for expert assistance.

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