Delve into your family tree—and find roots in Bethnal Green
PUBLISHED: 12:00 22 April 2011
Most Brits delving into their family tree will probably find the roots going through London's East End at some time or other—and especially the poor parish of Bethnal Green, it seems.
That’s according to one of the country’s top archivists and genealogy experts, Jane Cox, now retired but with a dozen books on the East End under he writer’s belt.
Her latest is an essential guide to ‘Tracing East End Ancestors’ published this week.
Jane, now 69, who worked at the National Archives for almost a quarter-of-a-century, has her own roots firmly planted east of the Aldgate Pump, at least back to the 1680s and the silk-weaving community.
She treasures family snapshots and proudly shows them to visitors to her spacious Georgian house not too far from King’s Cross.
Pride of Place is the patriarch of the family—her granddad Sidney Short’s wedding to Lil Daniels, taken in the back yard of their terraced home in Old Ford in 1907. It’s got all the ancestors of three generations in that shot.
Another has Sid about 15 years later, early 1920s, outside his “oil and colour” hardware store in the Roman Road.
It sold everything from paraffin and paint to chicken-wire fencing and tin baths. The sign above the door offered boxmakers’ glue at 6½d a lb (3p). He must have cornered the boxmakers’ glue market at that price, she thinks.
A special treasure from the family album is her mum aged 10, seen in a Class 7 photo taken at Malmesbury Road Elementary School in Bow in 1920. She’s at the far right, second row.
One family anecdote is about her aunt Violet Short, who also went to Malmesbury Road School, in the days when the young scholars were told to use spit to clean their slates after writing lessons.
“Poor Violet didn’t have any spit,” Jane tells you. “She had to borrow some from Ernie Slack, the boy next to her.”
Often sad stories emerge when you delve into your family tree, like her great aunt Esther who died of ‘fossy jaw’ cancer in the 1890s while working at Bryant & May’s match factory. The family think it was from years of working with phosphorous, though Jane is quick to point out the company always denied it.
Further back, she traces her family to the 17th century, having found a Thomas Short in 1685 living in Bethnall Greene (their spelling), a silk weaver possibly of Flemish blood.
“From that point in history, Bethnal Green went right down,” she insists. “My family were the dregs of society.”
But perhaps there’s some writer’s licence here. Afterall, granddad had a busy little hardware shop. Mum was a child prodigy pianist at seven who could tinkle the ivories to public performance standard—and went on to teach piano years later at her home in Tredegar Square, the ‘posh end’ of Bow. Hardly the ‘dregs’ Jane would have you believe.
Jane herself is a trained historian with a degree from Queen Mary College in Mile End in 1964. She went on to a career in the Public Records office in Chancery Lane from 1967 to 1989.
“There was a huge number of people calling in to trace their ancestors,” she recalls. “But I was told to have no truck with ‘empty headed’ people looking up their family tree.
“It struck me this was nonsense—genealogy was a growing industry.
“I was surprised working in the National Archives how many times places like Stepney and Limehouse cropped up—especially Bethnal Green.”
That’s when Jane developed the ‘theory’ about everyone having an ancestor or two—perhaps even royalty—who would be familiar with Brick Lane or Columbia Road.
“I used to give talks around the country and always asked if anyone had East End roots,” Jane recalls. “A forest of hands would go up.
“Then I would ask where—and most would say Bethnal Green. It was creepy.
“Half the world seemed to have their roots in Bethnal Green—even visiting Australians would mention it.”
She discovered Henry VIII, no less, bought a hunting lodge somewhere in the parish for the grand sum of £114—but no-one seems certain exactly where.
Jane Cox wrote the very first genealogy guide to the National Archives, which gave her the bug for writing. Several titles followed, all on East London’s heritage.
Her ‘London’s East End’ was published in 1994 and she has recently completed a history of Stepney Parish.
Her latest family historians’ guide helps strangers through a maze of courts and alleys that was once the home of their ancestors, bringing to life that vibrant, polyglot society and describing the many sources researchers can use—archives, records, books and nowadays the internet.
Next, Jane is working on ‘A History of Tower Hamlets’ tracing places like Old Ford village, by the River Lea, back to pre-Roman times—even older than London itself, she points out with true East End pride.
Tracing Your East End Ancestors, by Jane Cox, Pen & Sword Books, £14.99.